Ever since I travel through Asia, I have always been intrigued by this country on the edge of the Indochinese peninsula. Having opened to tourism only in 2010, it has not yet developed invasive mass tourism and it is possible to taste a genuine culture that is difficult to find in other Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam or Thailand. Even the most visited places still maintain (so far) an original tone and character. Rich in different ethnic groups that make it peculiar (also due to the frictions that arise), Myanmar is still an extremely poor country, despite the economy’s strong growth in recent years. The most widespread religion, Buddhism of the Theravada school, impregnates the strata of society to the core: Buddhist pagodas or temples cover the country from north to south, in cities as in the countryside.
I spent only 12 days in this wonderful country and the destinations visited were few. The initial plan was to stop at least two weeks then for a whole series of personal situations I had to change my plans. On the other hand, when travelling for a long period it is difficult to stick to the plans because something that was impossible to calculate always happens, especially because you meet people who change your life. Let’s say that for now, it has been a taste and that this nation will see me again deepening those aspects that I missed in this first foray
“Those who visit Burma rarely realize the difficulties of daily life in our country. Apparently things seem calm and serene, and only those who are familiar with states governed by inefficient dictatorial regimes can realize what really happens.”Aung San Suu Kyi
There are findings of settlements dating back to 11,000 years ago, but the first civilized people was the one called Mon, who slowly migrated to these places from 3000 BCE and in the third century BCE founded the kingdom of Suwarnabhumi around the port of Thaton. The Mon welcomed Buddhism in the second century BCE when the monks of Ashoka, king of India, spread the word of Buddha throughout Asia. Thus a Mon-Indian hybrid culture was formed that dominated the whole south of Burmese territory. The north was divided into city-states under different Shan and Tai kingdoms and ethnicities and whose alliances included China, the kingdom of Siam (central Thailand), Laos and Lanna (northern Thailand).
Pyu and Pagan
In the first century BCE, the Pyu entered the country by founding city-states and taking control of Burma. The Chinese, with whom they traded, describe them as a peaceful people, in whom the war was unknown, the prisons did not exist and the violators of the law were punished with frustrated or the death penalty. Theravada Buddhism was practised and all children were sent as novices to temples from 7 to 20 years of age. Disputes were resolved with a champion fight or construction contest. These people were defeated in the ninth CE by the reign of Nanzhao, a Bai population of the Chinese Yunnan territory.
In the second half of the 9th century, other people invaded Burma, the Bamar. They settled in the north and founded the kingdom of Pagan (present-day Bagan). In 1057 they defeated the kingdom of Tathon in southern Myanmar by unifying the country. They became a powerful kingdom that controlled much of Southeast Asia parallel to Cambodia’s Khmer. Its decline occurred centuries later due to a concentration of territories and resources in the hands of the Buddhist clergy (Sangha) and with the arrival of the Mongolian threat from the north. In fact, in 1289 the Mongols entered the territory, plundered the capital and established a puppet government.
Two centuries of internal battles followed due to a new division of the territory. The kingdoms of Ava in the north and that of Pegu in the south were main protagonists, but with constant influences from Thailand and China. The famous 40-year war further exacerbated the relationship between the two kingdoms leading to nothing. Despite this, Burmese literature and commerce flourished. This period continued until the Taungù dynasty, which began a reunification campaign bringing it to an end between 1551 and 1581 thanks to Bayinnaung, first the general and then the king of the Taungù. Upon his death, however, the kingdom still fell apart. It was reunified in 1613 by Anaukpetlun defeating the Portuguese who descended from the north. New internal struggles divided the country until the Taungu dynasty was defeated again. In the meantime, a new dynasty made its way, that of the Konbaungs, which not only unified the kingdom again and brought Myanmar to new splendour, but widened its borders by conquering Ayutthaya (Thailand).
The expansion of Burma worried China which invaded it three times during the 1700s but they were always rejected. Siam took advantage of this to get rid of the invading Burmese and recover Ayutthaya. As Myanmar conquered Assam, the British who ruled India became concerned and attacked Burma. Within three different wars, all during the 1800s, it occupied the entire country. This became a province of India with the capital of Rangoon (now Yangon). Pockets of rebellion quickly formed and were contained and eradicated by the British. These sent Indian settlers to occupy and plant rice in Myanmar lands. After the Suez canal, in fact, there was an increase in the demand for Burmese rice. The economy grew rapidly but everything was concentrated in the hands of the British and Indian settlers without any benefit for the local population.
From 1920 associations formed and armed riots began against British colonists, both by civilians and monks. Tax protests, against the education and the political system went on in the 1930s, with riots that from a regional level became a national level, which ended in massacres by the British army. These decided to separate India and Burma in 1937 and a new constitutional system was created, with elections by universal suffrage. This gave new hope to the Burmese who launched into new protests, quelled by force.
Second World War
Many took advantage of the outbreak of the war to gain independence from the British. General and politician Aung San allied himself with the Japanese who had promised to support them against the invader. So, in the early 1940s, Burma changed invaders. The Japanese, in fact, far from the idea of making Myanmar independent, occupied it militarily. But with the bad trend of the war for the Land of the Rising Sun, in 1945 the Burma National Army freed itself from the Japanese oppressor with the help of the British, who wasted no time in regaining control of the country. A new government was formed in 1947 and after various internal frictions, Aung San held the position of vice president of the Executive Council, successfully pursuing independence negotiations. However, he was assassinated by U Saw, and with him many party members.
A new government was formed which gave birth to the Burma Independence Union in 1948. The anti-British sentiment was so strong that Myanmar refused to join the Commonwealth (as India and Pakistan had done). Communists of various orientations arose in protests and insurrections against the government. The north of the country was controlled by Kuomintang when Mao’s communists won the elections in ’49. Ethnic minorities asked for a federal state and getting nothing they launched themselves into fiercely repressed guerrillas by the state. Years of government instability followed, US aid was initially accepted and then refused to stay outside of controversial international policies.
In 1962, to stop internal conflicts, General Ne Win organized a coup d’etat and founded a socialist government led by a “revolutionary council” formed by army generals. In the same year, there was a peaceful protest at the University of Rangoon which ended in massacres by the government, which also blew up the student union headquarters. Mass arrests followed the following year until all forms of opposition were banned in 1964. Buddhism was declared a state religion (which sparked the Kachin protest). The dictator closed the state to the rest of the world. Protests against the government did not stop especially in the late 1980s when, according to UN estimates, due to a poor economic policy by the socialist government, Myanmar entered the list of fourth world countries.
In 1988 a series of violent protests and repressions started which led to a revolution and civil war. General Saw Maung organized a coup and took command by establishing martial law. The military government changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar in 1989. In 1990 there were elections and the Democrats won but their leaders (Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Aung San and U Tin U) were kept under house arrest. In 1992 Than Shwe replaced Saw Maung and freed U Tin U, giving Aung San Suu Kyi the possibility, in 1995, to get out of arrests without being able to leave Rangoon. in 2006 the capital was moved from Yangon to Naypyidaw. Also due to international sanctions, in 2008 a constitutional referendum contested by the democratic opposition was granted as it allowed the military 25% of the seats.
Elections took place in 2010, boycotted by Democrats claiming they were full of fraud. In fact, the military party won with 80% of the votes. After the elections, however, the government implemented a series of reforms aimed at making the country more democratic: mixed economy, national reconciliation, the release of political prisoners, the establishment of a national civil rights commission, possibility of strikes, of creating unions and press censorship was eased. In 2012, new elections were held in which 46 seats were granted (the rest, the majority, remained in the military party) giving the Democrats the opportunity to participate (which won 43 out of 46 seats). In 2015, other elections followed, considered the most democratic so far, where the military held 25% of the seats: they were won by the National League for Democracy.
“The only factor of great influence on Burmese culture and civilization is Theravada Buddhism; in all parts of the country where Burmese live there are Buddhist pagodas and monasteries. The tapered cusps of the pagodas, painted in shining white or gold, are an essential component of the landscape. It is no coincidence that Burma is often called the “land of pagodas””Aung San Suu Kyi
Actually, I haven’t seen much of this fascinating country and the time to immerse yourself in the local culture has been very short. There are not many places where tourists can move safely, considering the vastness of Myanmar, we understand how little we can see of this Asian pearl.
Considered the most spiritual country in Asia, the most widespread religion is Theravada Buddhism, widespread in 89% of the population. In any Burmese village, in fact, the monastery is the centre of cultural life and the monks are also revered by the laity. Buddhism came about 2000 years ago, mixing with Hinduism and local animist traditions (still followed in certain villages). There are also other religions, such as Islam (4%), Christianity (4%) and Hinduism (1%). Although officially there is religious freedom, other traditions are often discriminated against; which often leads to clashes, especially between Buddhists and Muslims.
The main Buddhist practices are acquiring merits for future life through current choices and decisions and Vipassana meditation. Merits are acquired by respecting the 5 precepts (refraining from killing, stealing, lying, bad sexual behaviour and drinking intoxicating substances) and by doing works of charity and good deeds. There is also an occult practice, called Weizza, which includes the use of spells, alchemy and the practice of Samatha meditation.
All males enter the monastery doing monastic life, even for a short period of time. This practice is called Shinbyu, or novitiate, which takes place no earlier than 7 years old age. They stay in the monastery, practising the 10 precepts (in addition to the classic five, there are others: do not spread the defects of the Buddhist community, do not praise yourself or speak ill of others, do not be stingy, do not harbour anger, do not speak ill of Buddha, Dharma or Sangha (Buddhist community)), at least for 3 months. At the age of 20, they have the opportunity to be ordained monks and live forever in the monastery, following the 227 precepts. Many poor families, unable to afford the school fees, have their children study in monasteries throughout the school.
Out of a population of 53582000 inhabitants, 500 thousand are monks and 75 thousand nuns. The following rules are very strict, 227 in total, such as the obligation to beg for food (early in the morning the novices go around the village or the city to collect the food offerings of the devotees), to be able to eat only before noon, live in chastity, do not touch (nor be touched) by women (valid for male monks), not being able to be alone with a woman, not using money, not trading, not sleeping with the laity, not consuming alcohol, don’t tickle, don’t play with water, don’t light a fire (or allow someone else to light it), don’t wash yourself more than twice a month.
They wear a maroon tunic and recite the sutras in the Pali language (therefore, they follow the Pali Canon). Monks and nuns live separately and women have more restrictions than men. Indeed, in Myanmar, the female order is not officially recognized, since for years it disappeared and therefore the original transmission was lost. Those that exist are tolerated but not officially recognized.
Burmese society is closely related to religion. All holidays are Buddhist and the monastery is the cultural and social centre of the village. Monks are revered by the population. I have not had the opportunity to deepen the culture, unfortunately, but I have found Burmese people extremely calm, welcoming, kind and smiling. Myanmar is extremely cheap and, although now open to tourism, still quite genuine. The streets are often in poor condition and going from one place to another takes a long time and a good deal of patience. Burmese women are extremely charming wrapped in their wonderful traditional clothes that enhance femininity. Both males and females, use a reduced paste root to spread on the face to protect themselves from the sun and wear a particular skirt (yes also males).
Myanmar is a multi-ethnic state that is home to the beauty of 135 different groups, who speak 108 different languages. Bamar make up 68% of the population, while Shan 10 and Karen 7. Other ethnic groups follow, including the Mon, Han Chinese and Indians. Furthermore, Myanmar is home to the 4 main world languages: Sino-Tibetan, Tai-kadai, Austro-Asian and Indo-European. Cohabitation between these groups is not always peaceful unfortunately and there is no lack of violent clashes. Some of these have been persecuted by the government itself and forced to take refuge in other countries, including Thailand.
“In our country, women are among the poorest sections of the population, massacred by work; yet they have a truly precious and strong mind.”Aung San Suu Kyi
The former capital of Myanmar is the largest city with 4,576,000 inhabitants. Founded as Dagon by the Mon in the 11th century, around the Shwedagon pagoda, it was initially a fishing village. It was conquered by the British in 1824 and again in 1852. It was greatly embellished by colonists who attracted populations from other parts of Asia. In 1945 it was conquered by the Japanese and became the capital of independent Burma in 1948. A less chaotic city than the classic Asian capitals. The main attractions are the beautiful Shwedagon pagoda, the Kan Day Gyi Park, the Sule pagoda, the historic centre, the Chinese quarter, the Secretariat.
Beach with breathtaking beauty still not attacked by tourism, it is an inevitable stop for those who want to explore unspoiled natural places. Miles of virgin beaches, traditional villages, local markets, very few tourists and a lot of curious locals. In the evening there is practically nothing to do except enjoy the calm and silence.
The ancient capital of the kingdom of Pagan is Myanmar’s number one attraction. At 1500 meters above sea level, it is dotted with ancient and modern pagodas, in the number 3822. Founded in 1000, it retains its ancient charm and although it is a tourist destination, it has not lost its original character. Everything is very spartan, the roads are dirt and half uneven, apart from the main ones and you mainly move by electric scooter or bicycle. Sunrise and sunset seen from height are a must, like a hot air balloon flight. Inside there is a very charming traditional village: they grow cotton, spin it by hand and use it to produce various types of fabrics.
The second-largest city after Yangon, with 1,225,553 inhabitants. Unfortunately, I saw little and nothing due to a change of plans at the last minute, but the royal palace and Mandalay Hill are wonderful.
An extremely fascinating country that deserves further study. For me, it was an understanding that served me to understand what I had in front of me and what to expect the next time I go there because there will certainly be the next time.
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