Sunday, September 30, 2012

Myanmar Part II

My experience with Sittwe, located in Myanmar's northwest Rakhine State, began long before I stepped off the plane and onto the primitive oceanside airstrip that welcomes visitors to the former fishing village.

Upon returning to Yangon from my trip north through Bagan, Kalaw and Inle Lake, I set out in the morning's humidity to see if I could buy a plane ticket for the following day. My first stop was just downstairs-- the lobby of a small guesthouse I'd stumbled on with a few other travelers my first night in Burma.

"No foreigners allowed," mumbled the manager after a quick phone call to a local travel agent. His firm  dismissal came as a bit of a surprise; the evening prior, I'd received nothing but smiles and nodding heads from the front desk upon mentioning that I was interested in booking a ticket to Sittwe. My bags were packed, equipment charged-- I was practically fishing for my wallet when I received the disappointing news. 

But, as I'd come to learn quickly in the weeks prior, every "no" is at the very least as good as a "maybe" in Burma.

So, with that thought in mind, I walked out to the street and flagged down a taxi. Or, at least that's what the sign on the roof said-- many taxis in Myanmar have a greater resemblance to forms of transportation you may find in an episode of The Flintstones than any vision of a typical Western car-for-hire. The day before, I'd stepped into one of these vehicles only to arrive at my destination sufficiently soaked. A mid-drive downpour had come in through the taxi's four nonexistent side windows and drenched the interior. The driver didn't seem to mind though as he sped through the afternoon traffic hawking blobs of red betel nut spit every few minutes, some of which would find its way back into the car via the open window I was sitting near behind him.

My destination after the encounter I'd had at my guesthouse was the domestic airport where I hoped to speak directly with an airline. And, as it turns out, Sittwe was suddenly (and quite mysteriously) no longer closed to foreigners. I flew out the next day.

What I found in the ensuing week was a quiet town. But, as my days there came to pass, it became increasingly apparent that the peaceful atmosphere had come with a severe cost. The Muslim Rohingya's had, for the most part, been run out of town. Essentially, there was just no one left to fight with.

In June, a group of Rohingya men allegedly raped a Rakhine woman which set off a week of conflict between the two groups. The Rohingyas, whose ancestral roots can be traced to nearby Bangladesh, have lived in Myanmar for generations. Today, most live in camps near the border, wanted by neither Bangladesh nor Myanmar as Burmese President Thein Sein made clear when he stated that he would gladly send the ethnic minority group to any country that would accept them. 

On my third day in Sittwe I visited a local monastery where I met a young man who could speak basic English. I told him that I'd seen the burned out remnants of a Rohingya neighborhood but still had yet to come across any Rakhine houses that had been set aflame. Together we walked out to the road where he had arranged for a bicycle taxi to pick me up and after a few minutes I was on my way, at an excruciatingly slow-- amusingly slow-- pace. We continued at this speed past small shacks, over the numerous potholes that dot the back roads of Sittwe, and then, to my surprise, right through a gap in the barbed wire fencing of a military checkpoint.

Once inside, I was taken by a group of local Rakhine men down a side street where the road opened up to the charred remains of what was once a thriving neighborhood. Far across the field, a group of children played amongst the wreckage. 

"Rohingya," said one man, the distaste in his voice bordering on fanatical with its intensity. Moments later, after I'd taken a few steps closer to the kids, the men called me back, as if worried by some matter of proximity I may become infected with evil just by the presence of the rival group. 

The following day I was invited for tea by a group of men sitting in a circle of plastic chairs on a sidewalk near the ocean. The men have been meeting for years in the same spot every evening after work to talk about politics and Buddhism, the philosophy of the Rakhine people. On that particular day "Niban", the Burmese word for what is more commonly known as enlightenment, was the topic of discussion.

After some time, the conversation turned to the ongoing conflict. I asked the men how, as devout Buddhists, they could possibly condone the violence that had taken place in Sittwe. 

"We have tolerated the Rohingya people for years," said one man. "But we've had enough of them disrespecting our culture and disrespecting our women." 

It was clear then that the path to "Niban" did not include living in harmony with the Rohingya people.

Sittwe, Myanmar. 
In a Rakhine neighborhood, only the front steps remain of one home that was burned down in June.

A boy flies a kite among the charred remains of what used to be a Rohingya neighborhood in Sittwe, Myanmar.

The flag of Myanmar hangs in a burned down Rakhine neighborhood.

On Sittwe's main street, Rakhine men get their hair cut at a barber shop.

On Sittwe's coast, a young monk collecting offerings is reflected in the mirror of a motorcycle.

A member of the Burmese military stands watch as evening traffic passes by. A curfew of 7 p.m. was in place which left the streets nearly empty at night.

A woman passes by a parked police truck in Sittwe, Myanmar.

Barbed wire fencing blocks the road to an area of Sittwe where some Rohingya remain. 

A man flies a kite in the late afternoon on Sittwe's coastline.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Myanmar Part I

The past month has been a whirlwind of flights, trains, bus rides, broken computers and perhaps most discombobulating; a sudden and unexpected change in continents.

I left Thailand for Myanmar (Burma) on Aug. 25 after spending a week preparing for what would be a 17 day venture into the rapidly changing country. Things were looking up; my visa application went through with no hitches, my Thai Baht had been successfully converted into perfectly crisp U.S. Dollars-- only brand new unblemished bills are excepted in exchange for the local currency, Kyat, in Burma-- and despite monsoon season, the weather report wasn't even looking too bad.

Then, because of a lengthy list of details that I'll spare you from having to read involving my partial citizenship, I realized that I needed to move to Denmark. Like, soon. Like, I probably-shouldn't-be-galavanting-around-Asia-right-now soon. Like, immediately-after-I-get-back-from-Burma-is-the-only-way-this-will-possibly-work soon.

So I did.

And now, after getting settled into an apartment in Copenhagen-- courtesy of a good friend-- I am now finding the time to sit down and really take a close at my take from Burma.

My trip was essentially divided into two parts: Number one being the sightseeing and touristy beginning of my time in the country and two being the last five days, in which, I traveled to the town of Sittwe in the northwest Rakhine State where conflict between Buddhists and Muslims (frequently referred to as the "Rohingya" people) has been simmering since June when, in one single week, thousands on both sides were displaced from their homes after a violent string of murders and arsons took place.

But, before I post images and experiences from Sittwe, I think it would be better to start with something more broad-- something that shows something more subtle going on in Burma. At the core of it, the country is undergoing rapid changes. Just last week, oppositional party leader and National League for Democracy (NLD) chairperson, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, met with President Obama on his own soil-- a political appearance that would have been unthinkable a few years ago when Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was being held under house arrest in Yangon. Then, earlier this year, she was elected to parliament in yet another move that seems to hint at a more democratic future for Myanmar.

The future I heard locals speaking of varied from place to place. On a night bus somewhere outside of Inle Lake, a business man spoke of the plethora of possibilities as he flipped through files on his iPad-- his legs crossed underneath the traditional checkered longyi he wore together with a pair of weathered sandals.

In Kalaw, a small mountain town in Shan State known as a popular starting point for treks, I drank tea with a Punjabi guesthouse owner on a cloudy afternoon. His prognosis for the country he grew up in was much more grim.

"We cannot get passports, it would take years," he said, speaking for himself and other non-ethnic minority groups that inhabit the country. "But for someone with a connection to the government-- who knew the right people-- it would take just a few days."

Such division is apparent in Burma where the what-is-new clashes with the what-used-to-be-old each and every day.

Wearing a traditional Burmese "longyi", a man walks through the grounds of Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar. The pagoda is believed to have been built some 2,500 years ago.

A young couple check their smartphones as a monk reads a newspaper at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.

A goat herder tends to his animals near the Nann Myint viewing tower in Bagan, Myanmar. The 60 meter tower officially opened to the public in 2005 to provide a higher vantage point to see the over 2,000 ancient stupas and pagodas that dot the horizon of the surrounding area. Despite ample qualifications, Bagan has not been awarded a UNESCO World Heritage Site which some believe is due to the modern restorations some temples have undergone as well as the construction of new buildings such as the Nann Myint Tower. 

A woman walks past a Daw Aung San Suu Kyi t-shirt for sale at the Bogyoke Market in Yangon, Myanmar.

Crowds gather near the the Yangon central bus station in the late evening.

A young boy sits in his home outside of Kalaw, Myanmar. "It his our dream to live in a home like this," said his parents of the picture displayed on the wall behind him.

A boy holds a BB Gun to the head of a young Buddhist Monk at a festival in Bagan, Myanmar.

Wearing the white cream derived from tree bark as traditional make up, a girl sits along side a dirt road outside of Kalaw, Myanmar. 

A young couple share a roadside kiss after the night bus they were riding on broke down in the early morning on its way to Bagan, Myanmar.