Impressions of Myanmar (Burma)
Wyman, Sue, Contemporary Review
Editor's Note: There has been much attention recently on events in Myanmar or Burma with an election widely dismissed by the international community and release of Aung San Suu Kyi. This article is based on a trip made before these developments. Like the BBc and other news organisations, we have felt it prudent to allow our author to use a nom de plume as she may wish return to the country. She teaches at Harvard.
A CROSS from the Mandalay Palace moat, within walking distance of a complex now owned by the military junta, a pink billboard with these words in white is fixed to a scaffold:
* Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views.
* Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation.
* Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State.
* Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.
When I asked whether I could photograph the billboard, our guide said that he would try to pause there on our return from the Mandalay hill.  I assumed he had given me a diplomatic 'no', but true to his word, he later stopped the bus and escorted me through the stream of traffic. 'People's desire? Their desire!' he muttered as we re-boarded. I was with a group of unimportant tourists, Americans on our first trip to Myanmar as Burma now calls itself. But already, after only five days in the country, we had grown accustomed to the frankness of our guides. They may have been repressed but they were not afraid to say so. In this, as in many other matters, we would learn that no facts about Myanmar are wholly reliable, that all perspectives on the country are complex, and that the resilience of its citizens should never be underestimated.
Currency provided our first reality check. In the Foreign Exchange Currency forms we filled out on the plane, we had to swear we did not carry more than US $2000. We had been warned that credit cards were not accepted; this warning proved accurate. Wrinkled and worn bills were not accepted either, under government decree. Yet in Yangon, the stalls in the famous Scott's Market showed no sign of going out of business. Someone had to be buying the rubies, sapphires, emeralds, pearls, jade, gold, and silver that were either on display or secreted in drawers--and carrying them out unmolested. On the night we arrived, our guide advised us to exchange $100 for kyat, the local currency, because we would go to places where US currency would not be accepted. We went to local markets and several remote villages, but nearly always, people wanted dollars. Given the rate of inflation in kyat, this attitude was comprehensible. We bought ours at the rate of 900 to the dollar but were told that prices fluctuate from 600 to 950. 'In our country, banks do not help people', the guide explained as we rode into the centre of Yangon. If an ordinary person needed money, he would go to a pawnshop. There he would pay an interest rate of 5 per cent a month, a sum that would soon wipe him out. This explanation reached us as our minibus rolled past the famous Shwedegan pagoda, its stupas and shrines gleaming even at night under 60,000 tons of gold.
Statistics on most aspects of Myanmar life appear to fluctuate as broadly as the currency. When we were in Changrai, just across the Thai border, our local guide told us that Myanmar had a current population of 54 million. Our Yangon guide put it at 60 million. The CIA puts it at 48 million, factoring in the effects of AIDS. Estimates from other sources rise to 68 or 70 million, encompassing immigrant labourers and citizens who leave to find work or asylum. In Mandalay, I asked for a breakdown on class and relative income. Our guide responded that there are three levels: low, middle, and high. The high, 5-10 per cent of the population, consists of military people and traders; they have 'become most prosperous'. …