MYANMAR – First impressions & misconceptions (2 of 2)

(Written by Nick)

-Politics
“Don’t instigate conversations about politics or religion” warn the guidebooks. “Stay away from political gatherings.” What ridiculous advice. To visit someone’s country and not want to hear their views doesn’t seem very caring or engaging to me. Especially in a country that is going through a big change and opening up to the world. Attending an NLD rally a week before the 8 Nov 2015 election was the most incredible experience. The atmosphere was charged with happiness and expectation, and we witnessed interest in us like we’ve never seen before. People were so glad of the support and the recognition that outsiders were aware of what was going on in their country. Being British I was surprised to see no negative or ironic placards, no smearing of opposition parties, and no obvious vilification of the current government. We learnt a huge amount about the people in that one afternoon.

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Although we didn’t see it, we read in the news about some of the dark sides in the run-up to the election. The Muslim Rohingyas of Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh, have been violently persecuted for the last few years, mostly just for being Muslim. Stories of citizens and soldiers setting fire to houses with people inside and of monks beating innocent elderly people to death are frightfully not uncommon. A small historic islamist insurgency coupled with a larger ongoing Rakhine independence movement sowed the seeds for what is apparently now just racism, disinformation and distrust.

The Buddhist national party has grown both in size and extremity and has spread hateful propaganda via influential monks, blaming Muslims for all the problems. The normally peaceful image of Buddhism is being tainted with charges of hate speach, terrorism, and even ethnic cleansing. There has been little attention or help from the international community despite these Muslims being denied legal citizenship and the vote in the recent “fairest election in Myanmar in half a century”.

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-SIM cards
Buying a SIM card in India, Nepal and Bangladesh required submitting personal details as well as photos and a copy of my passport. Myanmar has none of these paranoid restrictions. Just like in England we were able to buy a SIM from a street stall without having our identities monitored and for only 1000 kyat (£0.60)

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-Driving
Unlike the other former British colonies, here they drive on the right. The curious thing is that the steering wheels are placed on the right side of the vehicle also. This adds another level of difficulty to overtaking. Again expecting to have my identity logged before being allowed on the roads, I was pleasantly surprised.

Motorbike rental shops (which are mostly guest houses) will give you a bike without checking any documentation or logging any detials with the authorities. In fact vehicle regulations are so lax that driving licenses are not required and neither are number plates. The shops are so trusting that not once was I asked to put down a security deposit and not once did they examine the condition of the bike when I returned it. Of course, they didn’t usually check the condition before they hired it out either and dodgy brakes were common. The cost was normally 10000 kyat (£6) per day for a 125 or 150cc scooter with gears and maybe 8000 for a smaller automatic. Sometimes they provided you with a full tank and you could return it empty.

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The road etiquette is similar, and riding a motorbike is not a problem if you are familiar with the asian rules of the road. It’s worth noting that, although antics on the road can often be comical, they should still be respected and expected. Driving as you might back home could be dangerous. Caution around the police and military proved unnecessary. They were helpful with directions and generally unconcerned about us. We rode in one area which travel forums said was closed to foreigners, and the locals said was not possible due to militant activity. Again we had no issues with riding past the militants/army, who sometimes looked curious but never enough to actually stop us.

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