An enormous statue of Buddha, a smothering and humid heat, posters covered with hieroglyphs, smiles revealing teeth reddened by betel, cars from another epoch, a sudden but refreshing rain, umbrellas opening, men wearing long skirts, streets congested with fruit and vegetable vendors, the night coming too early, buses overcrowded with passengers, new smiles, faces of women with the cheeks covered of yellow make-up, “hellos” emerging from the permanent noise of the street, a procession of monks meandering along the pavements barefoot, fixed phone lines put on small tables at the corner of the streets, small restaurants in the way, a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi along a portrait of her father, the general Aung San, a gold-color pagoda shining all over Yangon, boiling-water vapor coming out of huge pots put straight on the pavement, shouts mixed laughs or maybe laughs mixed with shouts… These are my first sights of Myanmar, barely out the airport, the eyes still full of sleep…
One month (Three now :p) after my arrival, they are now part of my everyday life. Little by little, I understood them so that now they make perfectly sense.
Living in Myanmar, it’s living in the fifties…
In Yangon, the former capital, the British colonial buildings are still there, devastated by the humidity and the running vegetation, like the silent witnesses of a country where time stopped. Yangon lives with the sun, and its face changes along the day. At dawn, the teashops where the fish soup based mohingas – the traditional Myanmar breakfasts – can be savored open one by one. Then the huge maze of tiny streets gets full of all kind of vendors spreading their goods – vegetables, fruits, flowers, fishes, meat, hacked CDs and DVDs, flip-flops – on their mats straight in the street. The distracted passer-bys will not notice that the morning fruit stalls are replaced by clothes stalls in the evening. At twilight, plastic chairs and tables invade the streets and people rush to eat rice, noodles, skewered chickens, fishes. Shouting is the right way to order and the conversations going along with “Myanmar Bia” – the national beer – are loud. And then around 10pm, everything stops, people go home, the vendors clean their stalls before lying on them for the night. The silence fills the city before everything starts again the next day. But Yangon, it’s also this huge pagoda, Shwe Dagon, covered with 700kg of thin gold sheets, which as a lighthouse lights up the town when the night arrives. Despite the hundreds maybe thousands believers coming to pray, to make offerings or simply to stroll around, the atmosphere is very quiet far from the agitation of the street at such a point that it almost becomes disturbing.
It’s a life in which everything is different, and also in which everything takes more time. A life in which the price of a cab is bargained, in which taking a public bus is a major achievement, in which hot water is only use for cooking, in which electricity blackouts still occur frequently, in which patience is required to get connected to the Internet, and in which copies of famous brands all imported from China can be bought for a handful of dollars.
In June 2011, under the pressure of the international community, a democracy took over the military dictatorship with at its head an ex-member of the “Junta”. In November 2012, Barack Obama’s visit aimed at negotiating the price of democracy with American dollars. Since then, quick changes has been occurring. Very quick changes. Maybe too quick for this archaic society. The “black areas”, before forbidden to foreigners, open one after the other. Not so reliable cash machines appeared and credit cards can now be used in the most prestigious hotels. The most famous European and American brands appeared in the everyday life. Coca-Cola taking the lead invades the stalls of the teashops.
Living in Myanmar, it’s discovering its people…
The first impression is surprising, almost disturbing. But the kindness of the Myanmar people is obvious! Strolling in the streets of Yangon is discovering people looking at you and smiling at you. The smile of these men wearing longys, their umbrella hanging from the waist, chewing betel all day long reddening their teeth and that they spit out afterwards. The smile of these women with their thanaka-shining cheeks – the traditional Myanmar make-up! And the smile of these children! The smile of these pupils squeezed in the public buses on the way home, the smile of these boys playing “Kimbo” – a mix of football, volleyball and tennis – the smile of these students who after school repeat religiously their lessons, but also the smile of all these children working in the streets, selling all kind of things, flowers, newspapers, bottles of water, and so many other who will never go to school. And there is this little girl, “Nimalé” – literally younger sister in Myanmar language – who works in a noodle restaurant down my street where every morning I take my breakfast. With her eleven or twelve years, she cleans dishes all day long. And every morning when she sees me, she smiles at me. Her smile lights up her tired face whose cheeks are covered with thanaka. Every morning, I look at this little girl. Every morning, I contemplate the sadness of her look contrasting so much with the beauty of her smile. Every morning, I smile back at her. And every morning, my noodles arrive but I am not really hungry anymore.
One day, in a small shop in a remote village, I met a man whose poverty is obvious. But as every people in Myanmar, his face is filled with a smile, and it’s naturally that he starts talking to me. His English is perfect. I learn that several times, he fled away to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore to make a living to survive. He speaks fluently Myanmar, Malaysian, Chinese and English. I share with him my feelings about the kindness of the Myanmar people and their incredible smile. He answers in a mix of shame and fatality: “It’s the only thing we have left.”
Fifty years of military dictatorship turned this country, which used to be rich and powerful, into one of the poorest and the least developed in the world. The fear of contestation from intellectuals pushed this regime, often considered as the most repressive after North Korea, to ruin the education system keeping its people in a permanent state of ignorance and subjected to the craziness of the astrologers of the general Than Shwe…
Of course, Myanmar is changing towards a better future. But the wounds are deep and the mentalities persistent.
Nowadays the school is free.
But it’s not compulsory. Within the poorest families, the children will only know the way to the paddle fields along their parents. Among those already attending school, many will not make it until the end. For the others, many will not pass the “10th standard” – the Myanmar high school diploma. The classes given in the governmental schools are simply not enough. Expensive evening classes will be required to have a chance to get in university. But the future of the graduates from Yangon and Mandalay universities is not very promising either. In this country where there is no job for them, for their level of education, most of them will prefer going back to their families, to get a low paid job rather than taking the opportunity to go abroad.
Today all the hope of the Myanmar people is embodied by Aung San Suu Kyi but the actual Constitution prevents her from being candidate for the next presidential elections in 2015. Waiting for a more promising future, thanks to the action of Children of the Mekong, thousands of children can still go to school. As for me, I get used slowly to this culture, so different but so spellbinding. And more than my work for Children of the Mekong, I endeavor to be this presence and to give this reassurance and this feeling of existing that all these children miss but whom nothing would be able to steal their smiles.
 Leader of the independence of Myanmar, the general Aung San is assassinated on July 19th 1947, six month after the end of the British colonial empire. His daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi was only two years old.
 The Myanmar people encompass actually 8 ethnic groups: the Bamars – or Myanmars, the Shans, the Môns, the Karens, the Kayahs, the Chins, the Kachins and the Rakhaings. The ethnicity is usually more important than the nationality.
 Following the advices of the astrologers of the general Than Shwe, the two wheels were forbidden in Yangon, and the driving side was shifted so that Myanmar is now the only country in the world where the cars drive on the right with the steering wheel on the right! The climax of their craziness is reached in 2005 when an entire city, Nay Pyi Taw, is built from scratch with the only goal to become the new political capital of the country.