Semester at Sea: Myanmar

To be completely honest, Myanmar wasn’t a place where I expected to enjoy myself – and I think that’s why I was initially so drawn to it. It’s a country that has only recently opened to tourism, a place carrying a past littered with dictators and oppression, a country that is making headlines for all the wrong reasons. When the MV World Odyssey docked in Yangon, I expected to be met with poverty, filth, destruction, and fear. I expected to approach each person and each attraction with caution, to be approached with hostility and distrust – and I experienced it all. However, what I didn’t expect was to witness so much beauty, bliss, and tranquility in a place that is home to so much violence. Even more, I didn’t expect to feel so guilty and so sick to my stomach about the wonderful week I spent in Myanmar. I gawked at stunning pagodas that seemed to be bathed in gold, learned the steps to a traditional festival dance in the outskirts of Yangon, played “rock paper scissors” with giggly children in rural villages, and choked up while leisurely floating over ancient Bagan in a hot air balloon. I was taken aback by the contagious joy that seemed to miraculously grow out of cracks in the pavement, the undying optimism and hospitality that almost successfully distracted me from what was happening just a few hours away – almost.

Throughout my stay, I couldn’t stop thinking about the indigenous Burmese in the northern Rakhine state. I learned that every single day, a population of almost two million Rohingya people are stripped of their nationality and persecuted based simply upon their ethnicity and their . Muslim faith. I learned that the Myanmar government refuses to recognize the Rohingya as Burmese citizens and denounces them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, ignoring the fact that the Rohingya people have a rich history in Myanmar that dates to the eighth century. This “ethnic cleansing” has been escalating for over six years and has forced almost a million Rohingya refugees to flee to Bangladesh or endure torture, rape, labor camps, and forced relocations by the Burmese military. The Rohingya people are currently being deprived not only of their land, but also of their citizenship, their identities, and of their humanity.

My version of Myanmar may be magical, but their lives are far from it; the Rohingya people aren’t able to enjoy the splendor that is Myanmar because they have been marked by those in power as undesirable, foreign, and disposable. As a tourist, I was horrified to be treated with more respect and compassion than those who’ve always called Myanmar home. While I hovered in the clouds over thousands of worship sites, rice farms, and makeshift shack villages, I couldn’t help but notice the five-star resorts on the edge of town, dotted with striped umbrellas and cerulean blue swimming pools. I couldn’t help but look at myself with new eyes, to see myself as the foreigner I am, as a person who can’t possibly understand this vast country and my place in it.

Myanmar taught me that being comfortable can sometimes be the worst feeling in the world. I will always remember the faces I passed on the streets, painted with homemade sunscreen and desperation. I will never take my citizenship for granted, I will pray every day for those who experience the ceaseless pain I am not able to alleviate.

Thank you, Myanmar, for showing me that unseen tragedies are not any less devastating, and for instilling in me a greater sense of self- awareness. Thank you, Myanmar for welcoming me, for scaring me, and for challenging me –you will forever be on my mind, and your people will forever be in my heart.

 

Images courtesy of: Stephanie Harris