Understandably, we have been possessed by all things relating to the pandemic. We have also been consumed by our nation’s own political turmoil during and following a presidency like no other in American history. All of that said, not much press and even less attention has been given to last week’s surprising, though not completely unexpected, military coup in Burma/Myanmar.
Politically, Burma is proof positive that the process of embarking on a democratic form of government is a fragile undertaking, the success of which is never guaranteed. Not even close. Indeed failure is a far more likely possibility.
Following nearly five decades of military rule that ended in 2011, the Burmese people were inching towards their desired democracy, nascent as it was. A constitution was drafted in 2008 and the National League for Democracy party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi – who had been under house arrest for two decades – had won landslides in both the 2015 and 2020 elections, the only two democratic elections the country had seen since 2011.
Burma had slowly opened to foreign markets, innovations and investments. It also opened to the almighty dollar of tourism. In 2011 only 300,000 visitors traveled to Burma, increasing to 4.7 million by 2015, decreasing to 2.9 million in 2016 then increasing again to 4.3 million in 2019.
Despite a democratic air, the military was always lurking in the shadows or really just hiding in plain sight. Though Suu Kyi won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, much international criticism has been leveled against her and the NLD arising out of alleged complicity in the government’s ethnic cleansing in Burma’s western most Rakhine state in 2017 and the seeming inability to navigate away from the military’s ever-present strong arm.
In 2017 I was fortunate enough to report from Burma. For me it also marked a milestone as it was the 100th country to which I had traveled. Burma was a trip long in the making and was every bit as colorful, interesting and spiritually fulfilling as any journey that had come before it or since … perhaps more so because I had dreamed of Burma for so long while reading Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham and George Orwell.
Three weeks of exploration, cultural immersion and in-depth, lengthy conversations with a steady handful of fluent English-speaking Burmese left me promising to return to this ethnically diverse, culturally rich and geographically impressive nation. The return was planned for late 2020; then the pandemic hit and life as we all knew it immediately halted.
My heart now breaks for democracy in general and the Burmese people in particular. To commence the taste of the precious freedoms associated with democracy only to have them summarily cease must feel especially cruel – a fate no doubt shared by those currently residing in Hong Kong albeit for entirely different reasons.
As we hope for better days ahead and wait for the world to reopen, curious readers, vicarious wanderers and armchair travelers can read “Rediscovering the Road to Mandalay” about the Irrawaddy River here. Or you can read about Burma’s Inle Lake region here.
Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney and legal columnist and the author of the award-winning travel memoir “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at www.vagabondlawyer.com