I first visited Myanmar – also known as Burma – at the end of 2001. This blank page of Southeast Asia known mainly as a benighted country ruled by fear, was opening up tentatively to curious and intrepid travellers. The generals who had ineptly run the country since 1962, brutally quashed the popular uprisings of 1988 and ignored the election results of 1990, were poised to release Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s most famous prisoner of conscience, from house arrest, providing a faint glimmer of hope for 2002 onwards. The travel boycott that existed at the time against Myanmar gave me pause for thought, but the reactions of everyone I met there – from local hotel owners to members of satirical comic troupe the Moustache Brothers – reassured me that my decision had been the right one.
Sadly, Aung San Suu Kyi’s ‘freedom’ was short lived. The Nobel Prize winner was back under house arrest in 2003 and wouldn’t step outside her gates again until 2010, when another rigged election had been held, securing the military, under the guise of a proxy political party and a quasi-civilian government, five more years running Myanmar. When I returned to the country in February 2011 to research the Lonely Planet guidebook few were under any illusions that it would be pretty much business as usual for the same corrupt powerbrokers- ‘old wine in new bottles’ as the local phrase went. Still, even then, there were faint, but distinct, hints that the mood music was changing. People were talking freely about a whole range of topics hitherto considered dangerous. I was told about the opening up of political space and the hope for the next election in 2015.
Now, just two years away from that event, I am about to journey to Burma for the third time, again to research Lonely Planet’s guide. You won’t need me to tell you that much has changed, some of it for the better, in the country since my last visit, News of the Aung San Suu Kyi’s transformation from the general’s pariah to respected member of parliament, of her and President Thein Sein’s ground breaking overseas tours, of the end of sanctions and the ‘uncensoring’ of the local media have all been trumpeted around the world. There are those who quite rightly point out that Myanmar remains a country blighted by civil war, appalling human rights abuses and dire poverty. But positive changes can’t be denied and it’s the impact of these that I’m so looking forward to seeing in the coming weeks – particularly on the lives of ordinary Myanmar citizens from Yangon’s punk rockers speaking out against hate mongering Buddhist monks to the flourishing contemporary art scene emerging in the former capital and the efforts of concerned citizens to save grand but crumbling colonial architecture of the city.