Myanmar, Burma? Burma, Myanmar? Even its name is confusing. Should you call the country Burma, its former name which Aung San Suu Kyi believes it should still be known as because its new name was chosen undemocratically? Or should you call it Myanmar, the name its residents actually use on a daily basis? Like most things in the country, its never black and white.
Myanmar/Burma is a place you fall in love with the moment you arrive. The kindness of the people and the feeling that you’ve stepped back in time to the ‘old Asia’ make it incomparable to any place I’ve ever been. But it just as quickly breaks your heart, when you see the women and children building new roads by breaking rocks with their bare hands, who are paid £1.50 for a day’s work. Or the 15-year-old delivery boy who has to carry 50kg bags of chicken feed on his back. It’s a country that has been brought to its knees by corruption, where the majority of its inhabitants live in poverty.
Also difficult is the fact that everywhere you go you’re aware that people can’t say exactly what they think. Even in teashops conversations are guarded, because you never know who’s listening. Coming from the UK it’s almost impossible to imagine what it’s like to not have freedom of speech, where the media is censored and you can be thrown in prison simply for expressing opinions which don’t tow the party line. Because even when you have absolutely nothing, you should at least have the basic human right to say what you think.
But right now in Myanmar there’s also a feeling of hope. A new government has been elected and Aung San Suu Kyi has left the country for the first time in more than two decades. Everyone is looking ahead to the next big election in 2015 and everyone is hopeful that change is on its way. The level of trust and affection people have for Aung San Suu Kyi is huge. Everywhere you go pictures of her remind you of the role she plays in locals’ lives. She looks over you as you eat dinner in a restaurant and peeks out from the dashboards of taxis and tuk tuks. I even spotted one or two people wearing t-shirts with her face on, something I’m fairly certain must be quite a recent development.
I’m sure the road ahead won’t be easy and that there will be many more difficulties to overcome along the way. But if the sweet, kind, lovely Burmese people, who have already suffered such hardships and repression, can hope then surely we have to too.