Burma - Part 1
By Robert Ross


“The struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma is a struggle for life and dignity. It is a struggle that encompasses our political, social and economic aspirations.”
“Those of us who decided to work for democracy in Burma made our choice in the conviction that the danger of standing up for basic human rights in a repressive society was preferable to the safety of a quiescent life in servitude.”
— Aung San Suu Kyi
(currently under house arrest
in Burma)


Burma — renamed Myanmar in 1989 by the military government — has been in the news recently; quite a bit, in fact. The news is usually centered around the Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. She’s been under house arrest since 1998 for her outspoken political views.

Because of her house arrest, she’s achieved worldwide notoriety and been able to bring attention to the plight of the Burmese people, who are living under a repressive military government. In October, we spent a week in Burma; a week that would dramatically affect our views on a part of the world that has seen its share of suffering over the centuries.

Burma is located between India to the west, Thailand to the east, and shares a border with China to the north. It has a population of approximately 48 million; more than 75% living in the cities of Yangon (Rangoon), Mandalay and Moulmein. Almost half of Burma is covered in forests comprised of teak, rubber, cinchona, acacia, bamboo, ironwood, mangrove, coconut and betel palm. The northern highlands have oak, pine and many varieties of rhododendron. Tropical fruits like citrus, bananas, mangoes, and guavas are found in the coastal region.

The Mons were the first inhabitants, migrating into Burma around 3000 BC. The Pyus were the next people to migrate into the area around 600 AD, setting up a capital near the city of modern day Prome. In the mid-9th century the Burmans migrated into the area absorbing the Mons and the Pyus. It is believed that all three migrations originated from the areas of Tibet and China.

Over the millennium, Burma has been unified three times by Burman dynasties. The first such dynasty was in 1044 AD, under the Bagan rule. This was considered the golden age in Burmese history. Along with large cities, thousands of pagodas were built along the Irrawaddy river. It was during this period that Buddhism became the predominate religion. In the 15th century the Taungoo Dynasty succeeded in again unifying Burma under a multiethnic kingdom. The final royal dynasty — the Konbaung — was established in 1752.

The British entered the scene with their initial conquest in 1824, leading to three costly wars and the final annexation of Burma into British India in 1885.

Burma’s more recent political history has seen short periods of relative calm only to be followed by conflict and repressive military regimes. During World War II, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father (U Aung San) was a student leader and was instrumental in putting together the BIA — Burmese Independent Army, aided by the Japanese. Later in the war, the BIA switched sides and aided the English and Americans in their fight against the Japanese.

Burma gained independence from Britain after the war, setting up a representative government. It was during this period when U Aung San — in a leadership role — was assassinated (and most of his cabinet) by his political rival. Since then, there has been a series of military leaders, riots, attempts at democracy, staunch socialist regimes, and various repressive dictates from the military government.

In the 1990 elections, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a landslide victory, but the junta refused to honor the outcome. As a result of this denial by the military, the U.S. and other countries have refused to adopt the name Myanmar (chosen by the military), instead using Burma as the official name of the country.

For us, the trip to Burma was no easy task. It involved applying for a costly visa months in advance, finding a tour group that would offer a sense of security while allowing us to explore the nooks and crannies of this fascinating land.  And, we had to find a flight that was within our budget with reasonable flight times.

After much investigation, we chose EVA airlines, flying out of Los Angeles to Taiwan for a brief stopover, then on to Bangkok; total flight time was 21 hours. After spending the night in Bangkok — in an attempt to recover from jet lag, we joined up with one other travel companion for a flight to Rangoon. Our overall land trip was arranged through Overseas Adventure Travel (

In addition to Burma, we traveled to Thailand, Viet Nam, Laos, and Cambodia. The trip to Burma was a one week pre-trip extension onto our travel itinerary.

After a short one-hour flight from Thailand to the Mingaladon International Airport in Rangoon, we disembarked, excited and apprehensive as to what would lie ahead in this land steeped in a history of ancient kingdoms and contemporary unrest.
To be continued . . .

Robert Ross can be reached at 
Copyright 2009 by Robert Ross, all rights reserved

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