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The Myanmar Coup, or the Tourist's Sin

Updated: May 5, 2021

Resistance Trough Art - Courtesy of BBC

Recently, news broke out on Myanmar’s military coup against its democratically elected government. Crowds have taken to the streets in peaceful protests against the overthrowing of the democratically elected government and imprisonment of its officials in the morning they should have been swore in for office.

This happened after the military, headed by army commander Min Haung Hlaing, accused the elections of being rife with fraud – accusations which were quickly dismissed as groundless by international observers. The “fraudulent” election resulted in a landslide win for Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLG party. I now have two approaches to this subject: a geopolitical one, and a personal one, as a traveller who’s been to Myanmar.

The result from the military intervention and lust for power?

Number one: banks closed. A widely-employed tactic to keep the population tame, out of their need to access their savings to survive. Keep the general population from accessing money, and not only are they likely to have less available funds to organize some sort of resistance, but they’ll have to prioritize earning enough to guarantee their wellbeing. Nobody has time to fight and protest when there’s no food on the family table.

Resistance Through Art - Courtesy of BBC

Number two: the Internet brought down in a clear, modern effort to disrupt organizational capabilities of any and all resistance against the military’s actions. This severed Myanmar’s residents from the rest of the world, from getting their stories out, from organizing in ways more efficient than mere word of mouth. Lessons learned from the Arab Spring, no doubt; communication and coordination make or break dominion of a country. 507,000 military personnel can easily best singular, local pockets of even the best organized protesters; but should they have to contend with a population of around 53,5 million people? Think again. To control and prevent an eventual insurrection, communication lines must be broken between would-be participants. The internet being brought down and a curfew being put in place are ways to go about it.

There’s a cautionary tale here regarding centralized, government-controlled access to the Internet, but that might be the place for another piece.

To finish this section, I’ll just add that at least this coup was carried out with much less bloodshed than the previous 8888 Uprising of 2011, which brought down the military state and implemented a democratic government. That revolution is estimated to have cost several thousand lives – though official numbers only point to 350 casualties. Since the military coup on February 1st, a single death has thus far been confirmed.

Resistance Through Art - Courtesy of BBC

Now for my personal take on this.

Reading this piece of news filled me with sadness; it wasn’t just the weight of empathically considering the strain that would put on millions of Burmese. I also felt personal weight.

I’ve been to Myanmar, and I never knew that it had only been freed from military control as soon as 2011. I went to Myanmar in 2019, and I never knew that particular part of their history. In fact, I didn’t know most of their history as a people.

I realized that despite my spending two weeks in Myanmar, covering some 400 km in a 100 cc motorbike between the cities of Mandalay and Bagan, I barely got to know the culture and people that surrounded me.

The 100 cc, clutchless, 4-geared Honda workhorse I rented for my Myanmar travels. Photo by me.

And then it hit me that that’s exactly what it means to travel as a tourist; and that that is also the extent to which the travel business is interested in selling us.

To be a tourist means to want a curated experience, where we are mostly exposed only to our ideal rendition of the country we’re in; not the reality of it. This is why places like resorts exist: to allow us a buffer between ourselves and the world at our (sometimes literal) doorstep. It’s why things like balloon rides across Bagan’s rising sun are a thing, and it’s why we can see the soil and temples and people of Myanmar from a perspective that 99% of them won’t ever be able to (If we pay up for the privilege, of course, as well we should – and when we do, we’re paying around 1000% more for a single trip than the average Burmese earns in a whole year of toiling, and barely any of that actually goes to the people you see below you in the scorching sun.)

I don't know what the starry-eyed child had to cleanse, but I did partake in the ritual.
A Burmese child watering Buddha. Photo by me.

Burmese don’t get that chance to “easily” drive 400 km in their own country, in which they themselves fought and bled for democracy – ultimately creating the stability that allowed me to go and visit their country, to marvel at the scale and breadth of their Buddhist temples… Yet generally ignoring them as a people with an identity,a history, hopes and dreams, outside of some momentary enjoyments and considerations. I don’t mean to say I was aloof towards them. Not at all. I genuinely enjoyed getting to know… Well, all Burmese, really. My perception was that they have been the most genuine and open people I’ve ever had the pleasure of “knowing”; of partaking with in small conversations, small gatherings in local dinners and coffee shops on the road. The people of Myanmar are not unlike a single unified entity powered by enthusiasm. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a city, a village, or just making a quick random stop for gas or to bask in a tree’s shade. Almost every Burmese I ever saw flashed a genuine smile, waved a hand, and generally showed genuine joy when laying their eyes on you. My thoughts go out to the people of Myanmar, who I loved in the simple, touristy way I could at the time.

The Collective - a ground transport in the outskirts of Bagan. Photo by me.

I will try to learn from this lesson, and remember to actually consider the reality of the places I’m visiting from now on. I’ll read on the country, on its people, and on their most important historic events. I feel that that will become the only right way for me to travel.


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