First impressions of Yangon
Myanmar has opened its doors in recent years, after it long been closed off to the rest of the world. A military junta had taken power in a 1962 coupe and haven’t lost control ever since. In recent years things are changing and a slow process of democratization is taking place. Some call the process ‘Myanmar’s spring’, but unlike the spring’s in the Arab world, the democratization process in Myanmar goes slow and without massive outburst of violence and many casualties.
We arrived in Myanmar on November 17th, just 10 days after the first ‘free’ elections Myanmar witnessed for 25 years. At the time off our arrival it was clear that the party of Nobel-price laureate and long time political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy (NLD) had won the elections by a landslide. Although the constitution prescribes an important role for the army, regardless of election results, this outcome means a huge power shift. An important period after the elections has now started as the new government has to be formed and a president to be chosen. As history has shown after 1962, whenever the military might have risked losing power, they intervened with brute force and have put down any thread. Will the country continue a peaceful transition? Will Myanmar continue its distinct spring we questioned before coming to Myanmar?
Pulse of the nation
We could see Shwedagon Pagoda from the toilet window of our friend’s apartment in downtown Yangon. The famous and most sacred Buddhist place in Myanmar is central located in Yangon and literally towering out above its surrounding area. Besides being a sacred place and a Yangon landmark, the Pagoda is said to be a useful barometer in unpredictable times. So off we went on our first day in Yangon, to check the pulse and just to watch this beautiful giant.
If the pulse of Myanmar already can be measured at Shwedagon, it is one off carelessness. Families wander around in their most beautiful clothes. Kids are playing on the hot marble floor. Here and there a monk is walking around the pagoda or sitting in the shade. Cats lay stretched out on the smaller surrounding pagodas and shrines. There were many tourists, mostly Western or Asian: couples, big tour groups and a few backpackers. The latter by the way didn’t have to acquire a longyi (traditional Myanmar skirt), because they were already wearing a skirt. Most tourist with big camera’s and the locals wit mobile phone focused on the golden belshaped pagoda. All of us making selfies.
In times of heavy tensions it weren’t the families, tourists, couples or monks pointing their camera’s at the pagoda, but it were the soldiers with the barrel of their guns. A large pro-democracy uprising took place in 1988. Started by students in Yangon, followed by millions across the country, demanding the end of military dictatorship. The protests were violently suppressed by the military resulting in thousands of deaths. Aung San Suu Kyi risen as a national symbol from the protests and won the following 1990 general elections by 80%. But the military refused to recognize the results and Aung San Suu kyi was placed under house arrest. Again in 2007, large nationwide demonstrations (known as the Saffron Revolution) guided by the same democratic ideals was beaten down with much violence by the military.
Times have changed and at this said to be pivotal point in recent history it doesn’t appear that there are heavy tensions. Over the last years there has been a military self intended move towards more democracy. On the other hand has the military secured it’s position in the constitution. It makes that the people we spoke are more confident that this time the military will accept the outcomes of the recent elections. This is however far from sure as history teaches us. That day at Shwedagon, however, we didn’t feel any tensions. It’s perhaps a sign that carelessness and confidence in the future reigns among the people of Myanmar?
Yangon perhaps has the best in tact colonial heritage of all cities in Asia. Current Myanmar (formerly Burma) was a province of British India oversees territory between 1824 and 1948. During most of British rule in Burma, Yangon was the capital. Different from other colonized cities, Yangon still has many buildings from the colonial era. Some in good state, those which have been renovated, but many are dilapidated. One that is still standing in the heart of Yangon is the former Pegu Cub. It was the most exclusive gentleman’s club for the English colonizers in the country they named Burma.
Located in a area with many embassies and next to the National Museum, the Pegu Club was particular hard to find. The location given by Google Maps appeared surrounded by al large concrete fence with barbed wire on top. Through a small hole in the wall we saw an old dilapidated building covered by threes and bushes. Was that the former exclusive gentleman’s club? It didn’t look like visitors were welcome here, even though we sneaked in through a small gate.
Sun-rays falling in through the holes in the wall. Musty air fills the room. It is here where the officers and diplomats of Imperial Britain sat with a glass of gin in their hand to loosen up, their jackets wide open to cope with the tropical Burmese heat.
The former Pegu club is in an extreme state of decay. Step by step we cautiously climb the stairs, hoping not to fall through. The glass from the doors and windows is gone. Before I walk through the door to set foot on the balcony, I catch my breath. Will it hold me?
The once most prestigious gentleman’s club of the country is now inhabit by dogs. I read somewhere that membership to the Pegu club was open to all gentlemen interested in society. The meaning of this rule actually was: no dogs and no orientals allowed. Today, in some off its surrounding buildings it looks like Yangonites have taken up residence. Their laundry hangs dangling in the warm wind. Kids are playing a game in front of the main entrance of the former exclusive club. An old lady is smoking a cigarette on the far end of the balustrade when we stroll past. She gives us a quick nonchalant look and then takes another sip.
The fast pace of changes that take place in Myanmar and Yangon in particular threatens the former Pegu club and other colonial heritage. Many of these heritage buildings are to be found in the center of Yangon, where the price of real estate has seen a unprecedented rise in recent years. Downtown Yangon prices can be compared with Manhattan these days. There is an enormous shortage of office and living space in the country’s capital that have been closed for so long and now attracts many companies and expatriates. Some of the heritage monuments have already been torn down, others are on the list to be taken down. A organization that wants to preserve these buildings is the Yangon Heritage Trust (www.yangonheritagetrust.org) which is founded by Myanmar historian and grandson of a former Secretary-General of the United Nations Thant Myint U.
Yangon, a modern city?
Wandering through Yangon it doesn’t occur to be in a country that until recently had been closed for so many years. On one of our first nights we sat on the terrace off a hip funky bar eating delicious Mexican food. It happened to be Gay Tuesday at the bar. On a certain occasion that evening a tall white man was showing off his just acquired glittering stiletto’s before his friends. Contemplating the situation over a beer didn’t make me suspect that we were in a country that had been closed for so long. Not because off the public appearance of men on high heels, but because of the apparent freedom that was enjoyed here.
On another occasion though, we heard about the conviction of a New-Zealand bar manager in Yangon. He posted an image of Lord Buddha with headphones on Facebook to promote a party. After 15 minutes he recognized his post was offensive to many people, so he took it off immediately. Last year, this New-Zealander, the bar owner and another manager of the same bar have been sentenced to jail with hard labour for two years.
Walking around Yangon it’s not only the old buildings that determine the streets. On the other hand Yangon isn’t Bangkok, where anything old is hard to find or overtaken by new mall’s, condo’s and skyscrapers. Downtown Yangon gives a very different interesting image. Old Yangon (the colonial refrigerator) is very present, which is amazing to see in a twenty-first century giant city’s center, but also new taller buildings have risen behind the old structures. It is hard to imagine how Yangon will look in like 10 years? Will it look, for instance, modern, like Bangkok, will it keep its distinctiveness heritage or both, in a unique Yangon mix of old and new?