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Myanmar – a country opening up?
May 12, 2021 - 20:11
After 50 years of isolation Myanmar, formerly named Burma, is finally opening up to the outside world. According to the media the country is now welcoming tourists, foreign investment and development aid. But exactly what does the picture of openness look like in reality?
Photo taken in a small village in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: children curious to see what is happening at our meeting inside the monastery.
Having spent a month (restricted time period for tourist visa) collecting empirical data for a master’s thesis in Myanmar, the general picture of ‘openness’ has become more nuanced and complex. The mysterious Myanmar is a country known for a variety of reasons ranging from its beautiful landscapes decorated with golden pagodas, Buddhist monks dressed in saffron-coloured ropes to a repressive military rule followed by fear and poverty. As a master’s student in International Development Studies and Communication I had a desire to explore the country and to study how the development of civil society in Myanmar is influenced by the political changes in the country, and what role development organisations play in this process. This required a field visit to Myanmar.
With the help of the Danish Embassy in Bangkok a collaboration with ActionAid Myanmar was established. ActionAid Myanmar is managing two projects, amongst others, implemented by a consortium of local (and international) NGOs named the Thadar Consortium. The two projects are implemented in the Dry Zone, in the central part of Myanmar, and in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta, in the southern part of Myanmar, respectively, and both projects focus on the strengthening of civil society and improvement of livelihood.
The field visit was an eye-opening experience, based on positive as well as negative surprises, and by sharing this experience I am hoping to give the reader a deeper understanding of what it is like to do fieldwork in a country like Myanmar that has just “opened up” to the outside world. What challenges can you expect to meet when working under these circumstances?
Before getting into a detailed description of my fieldwork I consider it necessary to briefly describe the country Myanmar and to highlight the most important historical and political events. In 1962 a military coup led by General Ne Win and the Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP) changed Myanmar from being a wealthy country to a country of repression, isolation and gradually increasing poverty. From 1962 – 2010 the situation in Myanmar was characterized by a number of uprisings against the military regime. One of the most well-known uprisings was in 1988 where large groups of students took to the street and, despite continued military ruling, managed to generate the resignation of the unpopular General Ne Win. However, the uprising was violently suppressed, and a large number of students died.
Seeing her country in that stage of repression, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s national hero Bogyoke Aung San (assassinated in 1948), made her entrance into the political arena to fight for a free and democratic Myanmar. She established the political party NLD ‘National League for Democracy’, but in 1989 she was placed under house arrest. 1989 was also the year when the government decided to change the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar, which caused further anger and frustration. In 1990 an election was held and the NLD won a landslide victory, but unfortunately, the military regime refused to recognize the election results, allowing the regime to stay in power.
The second well-known uprising, named the Saffron Revolution led by monks dressed in saffron-coloured ropes, took place in 2007. This event was violently suppressed and the action made the outside world aware of the critical situation in Myanmar.
Another event that attracted the attention of the outside world was when Cyclone Nargis struck and killed around 150.000 people in the southern part of Myanmar in 2008. For months NGOs were denied access to the areas.
From 2010 onwards the country started changing. In fall 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest – by this time she had been in house arrest for 15 years. A week before her release the government held a Parliamentary Election, but the NLD decided to boycott it. In 2011 a new democratic government was officially formed, with the leadership of the pro-democratic president Thein Sein, and this gave birth to a number of democratic reforms. In April 2012 the NLD won a landslide victory in a by-election, which meant that the party was now represented, although with a minority part of Parliament.
Fieldwork in Myanmar
Freedom of speech
Judging by national and international media channels it appeared that Myanmar had actually opened up, allowing tourists, development aid and foreign investment to enter the country. This, however, didn’t necessarily mean that the Burmese people were ready to express their opinions on sensitive issues like politics, the military government, civil society or democracy, topics upon which my master’s thesis is based. In order to adapt to these circumstances the research and interview questions were moderated accordingly.
The streets of Yangon: a young nun talking on her blue smart-phone
On arrival in Yangon, and all during the two weeks spent in Yangon, the picture given by the media appeared to reflect reality. To my surprise the changes in the country were visibly and audibly reflected in the city-life in Yangon. The majority of the taxi-drivers were eagerly explaining, in well spoken English, how the new government is better than the old one, and that they believed this transition would change their lives to the better. Many had a picture of the national hero, Bogyoke Aung San in the car, indicating that they were now free to voice their opinion. Others explained how Aung San Suu Kyi had saved the country. Judging by the Burmese history the people have been suppressed and restricted for the past 50 years, particularly in regards to freedom of speech. In my opinion, this openness characterizing the people of Yangon is an indicator of the changes in the country.
The prospects of the fieldwork now appeared more promising, as open-minded people are easier to interview. Unfortunately, the hope for success faded already after the first meeting with the Thadar Consortium. The Consortium emphasised the need to be extremely cautious with sensitive issues, like the political reforms, when entering the project areas. This obviously came as a surprise to me, as I got the impression from people in Yangon that they were now free to voice their opinion.
Village in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta Region
Obtaining permission to enter the project areas turned out to be more challenging than expected. Through correspondences prior to the field visit to Myanmar it was decided that the empirical data should be collected in the Dry Zone project, as this project seemed more relevant for the research. However, after arrival in Yangon, the Thadar Consortium didn’t succeed in obtaining permission to visit this area. In fact, no foreigner apart from project staff had ever been granted permission to enter that area, and even local people have to apply for permission to enter. After this discovery, which also seemed to be a surprise for the Consortium, efforts were made to obtain permission to visit the Delta project. Unfortunately this did not prove successful in the first place, and after a new attempt was made for the Dry Zone (also unsuccessful), a visit to the Delta finally worked out. This process cut a week off the limited time available for fieldwork.
Based on the impression from the media that Myanmar has opened up, it came as a surprise to me, and apparently also to the project staff, that it was this difficult for foreigners to enter certain areas of the country. In fact, before leaving Denmark a Burmese friend of mine, living and working in Denmark, encouraged me to stay a couple of nights in the homes of local people, as this would give me a deeper understanding of the Burmese culture. With this encouragement in mind it was particularly surprising to discover that even local Burmese people need to apply for permission to stay at the house of a friend or relative – and foreigners shouldn’t even bother applying, as they would not get the permission. This is today’s Myanmar.
During the preparatory meetings in Yangon I was briefed by the Consortium on how to present myself and on what to be aware of when operating in the field. First of all, I could not introduce myself as a student doing research in the villages. Apparently, the word ‘research’ is extremely sensitive, as it may raise suspicion among the local authorities of interference in local affairs. Under these circumstances I was given an “undercover” title as employee from the Thadar Consortium, and the purpose of my presence in the local villages was to collect information to write the Thadar Consortium newsletter. On the one hand, this new title made it possible to travel and conduct research in the project area. However, on the other hand, these precautions may have affected the answers given by the interview persons. They considered me as part of the Thadar Consortium, placing them in a position where they did not feel free to express their true opinions, for fear of jeopardizing their relationship to the organisations supporting them. This was of course unfortunate, but without the support of the Thadar Consortium it would not have been possible to enter the villages.
Photo taken in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: poor family
Furthermore, words like “political reforms” and “democratic reforms” could not be used – not during the interviewing and not even casually. In fact, it was extremely important that the interview questions were not in any way political or critical of the former military regime. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, ActionAid as a non-political organization is emphasizing the importance of not interfering with national or local political affairs. Secondly, the local authorities do not want outsiders spreading political information, possibly for fear of local resistance or unrest. Thirdly, despite the fact that the country has opened up the villagers living in the local communities still may feel insecure when being confronted with political issues. It is difficult, if not impossible, for the villagers to obtain information about the changes in the country, and they therefore may have a lack of knowledge about which rules have been abolished and which still apply. For example, during the fieldwork it turned out that the term ‘civil society’ was banned until after 2008.
These restrictions made it challenging to obtain comprehensive information from the interview persons. As an alternative to the sensitive terms I used the term “change” anticipating (and hoping) it would be understood as “political changes”. Unfortunately, this was not always the case. However, despite the restrictions and different understandings of “change” it was possible, by re-phrasing the questions and thus approaching the central issues in alternative ways, to achieve satisfactory outcomes of the interviews.
Travelling by boat to the villages in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: interpreter and interviewer taking a nap after a long day in the field.
One morning, when travelling by our usual motorised boat to one of the small villages, one of the project officers received a phone call from the police. He explained to me that he functioned as the contact person for the police in the township where we were staying, because they wanted to know our exact whereabouts every day, and they wanted to make sure that we returned from the villages before nightfall. The project officer assured us that there was nothing to worry about. Whatever the reason for their concern, I now decided to save the interviews recorded in the villages on three different digital devises – two of them located on our bodies. If the recordings of the interviews were confiscated by the police it would of course be devastating for my research, but my greatest concern was the safety of the interview persons. Later that night, when returning from having dinner at a small restaurant, our trishaw driver told us that the police were in our hotel. They were concerned because a Californian project officer, the only other foreigner in the township – and entire area, had not returned from the villages. We, on the other hand, didn’t need to worry, because the police knew where we were – having dinner at the small restaurant by the water. This constant surveillance emphasised the necessity in saving the interview recordings in a number of different places. This could have been an over-reaction, but after thus far having encountered numerous surprises in this country I was not going to take any risks.
It appears that the authorities have a need to constantly be in control by knowing the exact whereabouts of foreigners staying within their area of responsibility. Before the country started changing the NGOs, international NGOs in particular, were denied access to the rural areas. Today the situation has changed, but in my opinion it seems that the fear and need of control is still evident in the behaviour of the authorities.
The changes in Myanmar
Without doubt, Myanmar is changing. In cooperation with Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD, the pro-democratic president Thein Sein and his government is working to democratize the country, a political development that was unimaginable a few years ago. However, it appears that these changes are mostly evident on a national level. In the poor villages in the rural areas the changes are still tentative, and as a foreigner it is extremely difficult to get access and to operate in these areas. There is still a long way to go.
Photo taken in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: grandma smoking a cigar
Master’s student in International Development Studies and Communication, Roskilde University
Workplace student at NIAS