Just before we leave the big city of Yangon and head for the hills, literally, to experience some of the countryside in Shan State where life has not changed very much in many, many years – there are a few more sites to visit, ones that give insight into the struggle for freedom being waged by the Burmese people today.
The Sule Pagoda is central to downtown Yangon and is at one end of the square where many protests took place. Both Shwedagon Paya and the open square in front of Sule Pagoda had become rallying places for a variety of protests. Here, some thousands of students had been killed in a brutal crack down on protesting students on 8/8//1988. Other protests followed over the years, the most widely reported in the western media was the so called ‘Saffron Revolution” in 2007 (even though Burmese monks wear maroon robes.) This protest had begun in Mandalay when monks came out with their bowls turned upside down as a symbol of protest. Their protest soon gained numbers of lay people and spread to other cities including Yangon.
There are many reports of these protests on You Tube – just google ‘2007 Saffron evolution You Tube”.
The particular reason for these protests was economic distress right across the country. While the government generals and their families and supporters lived in luxury, the United Nations ranked Burma amongst the 20 poorest countries in the world. Costs of fuel and basic food stuffs such as rice, eggs and cooking oil were rising at an alarming rate and the average income was something below $300 a year. While huge amounts of money were being spent on the military, the health and education of the people were being neglected.
As we walked in this square, we remembered those who had lost their lives here, who had been injured, who had been imprisoned and tortured under a brutal regime. We also hoped that the signs of change in the current regime are real and that the move towards a better way of life for these people will soon become a reality.
The British built city hall, on one side of the square is one of the colonial buildings that has been restored.
At the other end of the square is a Baptist Church. There are also several Catholic Churches in the city.
On the fourth side of the square is a park with a massive obelisk rising 48m from the ground. It’s surrounded by five smaller columns and bronze lions. We were told that the people hope to be able to add a statue in this park to Bogyoke Aung San because he had dedicated his life to winning the independence of Burma from the British.
Less than a year before Independence was granted, Bogyoke Aung San was assassinated as he chaired a meeting of the Governor’s Executive Council in the British Secretariat Building. The building is now derelict.
Aung San Suu Kyi keeps a photo of her father on the fence of her home at 54 University Avenue. She was only two at the time of his death, but it is his dream of freedom for his people that is a real driving force in her life.
We stopped for a few minutes outside Aung San Suu Kyi’s home and reflected on her place in the history of Burma – and its future. She had just come back from a visit to the USA and a speech at the UN. The people love her and are so proud of her. They pin so much of their hope in her. We can only hope that she has good people to support her as she moves forward in a better climate of co-operation with the current President, Thein Sein.
I have been reading a very good book titled “The Lady and The Peacock; The life of Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma”. It’s written by Peter Popham, a respected English journalist who has been to Burma many times. The book is published by Random House. I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about this amazing lady.
The sign for the National League for Democracy and its symbol of the dancing peacock is on the gate post.
I found this rather thought provoking – a young frangipani tree planted outside the razor wire fence. The values Aung San Suu Kyi embodies are the ideals of faith, love, caring for others, compassion and freedom as opposed to the enforced ‘law’, and often brutality, the people have endured under repressive regimes and colonialism.
Another thought provoking sight was this tangle of electric cables. It seemed somewhat symbolic of the complex and tangled history of this country. We were told that this sort of wiring, if that’s what it can be called, is a ‘left over’ consequence of Cyclone Nargis which struck this area with such devastation in May 2008.
When the cyclone came across the Bay of Bengal, it caused it’s estimated over 200,000 deaths. It was the worst natural disaster ever to hit Burma. And the generals initially resisted help from outside countries and emergency agencies. How many more lives were lost as a result of that decision is not known. But if you google Myanmar Cyclone 2008 in Images you will be horrified, as we were, by the scenes that people with cameras and mobile phones tried to get out to let the rest of the world know what was really happening inside this country. Eventually help was allowed.
We met a Burmese doctor who had responded immediately to people’s needs. His stories of the awfulness he encountered, brought us to tears. His bravery and compassion inspired us. Since the cyclone, he has continued with his compassionate work, setting up mobile health clinics and helping to build schools and provide teachers. He’s an extremely dedicated man and we were very privileged to meet him and hear his story.
One of the casualties of Cyclone Nargis was “The Road to Mandalay”, the ship we travelled on for seven days on the Irrawaddy (or Ayeyarwaddy) River. It was in Yangon for maintenance when the cyclone struck – wrong place, wrong time. Fortunately, it is now better than new and we had a wonderful time on board.
But before we got to that part of our journey, it was time to farewell the city of Yangon and fly to Heho in the Shan State and drive north-west into the beautiful countryside and hills around Pindaya. This was a very different part of Burma and our journey became ever more interesting.
And on our wat to Heho, we flew close to the new capital city of Naypyitaw… but we did not stop by to visit!
When the military government decided to build a new capital, Naypyitaw, 320kms north of Yangon, they left behind a city which, they claimed, is expanding too much for the government to reside there. But they also left behind a city that had witnessed so many of the people’s protests and struggles for freedom. They built a new super highway from Mandalay to Yangon – eight lanes wide between Naypyitaw and Yangon. With that in place, the army can respond quickly to protests if need be! Within the city itself, there’s a 20-lane Boulevard, but like most roads in this new city, it’s usually empty – unlike the congested streets of Yangon that the generals left behind!
Construction of the city was begun in 2002. Since 2005, government ministries and military headquarters have gradually been moved to their respective ‘zones’. Civilians are banned from entering those compounds.
We were told that in the Parliamentary complex of the new city, there are 31 buildings as well as the City Hall and a 100-room presidential palace. In the Ministry complex, all the buildings are identical in appearance.
It’s estimated that almost a million people now live in the new city. Apartments in the Residential zones are mostly four story apartment blocks. They are allotted according to rank and marital status. The apartment roofs denote who lives there; green roofs are for employees in the Ministry for Agriculture. Ministry of Health employees live in blue roofed apartments. High-ranking government officials live in separate mansions as befits their status.
A huge pagoda / stupa called Uppatasanti Pagoda or Peace Pagoda was completed in 2009. It is similar in shape and just a little smaller than the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. It’s a show piece.
This is not a visitor friendly city, not one that the general population can enjoy. And, it seems, that most Burmese are not at all happy that billions of dollars were spent to build this new city while so many of the population are very poor, and while housing, education and medical health provisions need so much improvement.
We were not disappointed that we did not visit this new city – we had the real Burma to explore. More of that next time.
Jennie and David
Photography © JT and DY of jtdytravels