Under the dark years of military rule in Myanmar, foreign tourists werde granted a seven-day-maximum visa to visit the country. Furthermore, a big chunk of the country was strictly off-limits to foreigners, journalists, of course, were given no visas at all and tourists with long lenses on their cameras, or those with notepads jotting down their travel diaries in local teashops, were looked upon with mistrust and suspicion. The dramatic shift towards civilian rule happened in 2010.
“In the past, journalists led frightened lives”, says one Burmese photographer to me. “We feared that someone might come and knock on the door in the middle of the night, that they would take us away and that we would never be seen again.” Some of the foreign journalists like me had worked in Myanmar before, but undercover, posing as a normal tourist.
Now I am coming back to this country, not only for repeating my travels from then but also to document a crucial period of momentous change. Myanmar now seems open to all types of tourism, it still faces enormous challenges, ranging from handling a nationwide economic overhaul to battling racial and religious violence between Buddhists and Muslims.
I am not looking for typical postcard photos during my travel, I am more interested in the real life, behind the curtains. The darker sides of my Burmese travel were the evening procession of incense bearers at Mandalay’s Shwedigon Pagoda, meeting the Moustache Brothers, the popular comic duo whose satire earned two of them (one of them died in August 2013) a stiff jail sentence in a forced labour camp, the continuity of tradition as evidenced by the great craftsmen of Mandalay and the tribal women with their “long necks”.
I also observed the glooming dangers of Myanmar’s much misunderstood “opening up” to the outside world. More and more people like to get westernized in a way only a member of the traditional society can understand.
At the end of 2013, the country’s leading democratic icon, former political prisoner and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, criticised the opening-up process on the basis of her perception that her country was still not a genuinely democratic society: “Burma needs real change”, she calls. “We need to make our people confident that we truly are going to be a democratic society.”
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch accused the Burmese government and its security forces last year of committing “crimes against humanity in a campaign of ethnic cleansing” against Muslim minorities. The violence is attributed to the rise of an extremist Buddhist movement, called 969, which demands complete religious segregation in Myanmar.
In my opinion, however, change and cultural evolution will come. I think one great chance is that the fear among the largest part of the population is gone.