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Myanmar: Seeing is not always believing

By: Laurabeth Goldsmith This semester I am traveling the world on Semester At Sea, a University of Virginia study abroad program. As we circumnavigate the globe by ship, I will visit 12 countries and have the opportunity to examine different cultures, histories, and religions. I am particularly interested in gender equality and international development and am constantly looking at the world in the hopes that I can find ways to improve the quality of life for people around the world.

I had an incredible time visiting Myanmar and traveling around Yangon and Bagan. The people I encountered were incredibly kind, willing to share their thoughts and time, and the country itself was absolutely breathtaking. Before I go on to discuss my love of the country, however, I would like to put my experiences in perspective with the realities of the country.

Myanmar gained independence from the British Commonwealth in 1948. The country was then ruled on and off by a Military Junta. In 1987, the UN labeled Myanmar as the least developed country in the world. In 2007, there were a series of anti-government protests throughout the country in response to high diesel costs and oppressive government practices. In 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi - the primary opposition leader - was released from a total of 20 nonconsecutive years of house arrest. There were also elections in 2010 which were neither free nor fair. However, there have been recent reforms since 2010 that have begun to open up the country.

Today, Myanmar has a life expectancy of 67 years, compared to 78 years for the United States and 90 years for Monaco (the highest life expectancy in the world). The GDP per capita is $1,400, which places Myanmar at 206 out of the 228 countries listed in the data provided by the CIA World Fact Book. The wealth that does exist is concentrated in the upper class. Additionally, health and educational infrastructures remain vastly underdeveloped. Myanmar is the third largest producer of opium in the world. The country also has a substantial human trafficking problem, with women and children often forced into commercial sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and forced labor.

The government primarily allows visitors to a selected number of more developed areas. While I was in Myanmar, I visited Yangon, the former capital, and Bagan. Yangon was home to beautiful golden temples including the Shwedagon Pagoda. Bagan is a quaint rural area filled with over 2000 ancient temples. We traveled to Bagan on an overnight bus and arrived just in time to watch the sun rise over the temples.  While in Bagan, I enjoyed traveling by bicycle and horse drawn cart to visit the many temples, markets, and natural sites. I felt as though I was in a simpler place where people work hard to make a small living and have a quieter life style without many of the western luxuries. The sunrises, sunsets, and views were absolutely stunning - as was the generosity of the people.

I left feeling as though I would love to return to this country. This is likely the intent of the of the government regulations as to where tourists can visit.  I have hope for Myanmar that they will continue to develop infrastructure, education, and health systems. This will take substantial public pressure as well as continued reforms by the government. While I was blown away by the beauty of what I saw in Myanmar I still remind myself that seeing is not always believing especially when it comes to the realities of life for the majority of people in Myanmar.

Note: This post was originally published on the author's blog, and was put up on EJIA with the author's permission.

Laurabeth Goldsmith is a Junior at Emory University  studying Political Science and Community Building and Social Change.  She is interested in going into international development work and has previously worked for Girl Scouts, the Mayson Avenue Cooperative, and other non profit organizations. 

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