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Five teams of top, young journalists set out from Myanmar's commercial hub of Yangon to better understand how the country is changing under a reform-minded government. Travel along with these 20 reporters — 11 Burmese and 9 American — as they journey the ancient Burma Road, through the country's capitals past and present, down the Irrawaddy Delta, onto Inle Lake and across Yangon itself at a critical time in the country's history.
A journey through Burma's capitals, past and present, reveals steady reform and simmering religious hostility.
in conversation with her son, the mother steadied herself against the sihkara, the ornately ridged top of the temple, her hands gripping onto the white plaster that covers Shwesandaw’s red bricks.
The Spanish tourists, upon closer examination, noticed the crumbling grey plaster beginning to pull away just slightly from the red bricks of the sihkara like a loose tooth. The son lifted his sunglasses, inspecting the cracks in the plaster. They both cringed. The two then shrugged, returned to their conversation, and moved to the western face of the temple.
As the sun set, the crowd of tourists looked down upon dozens of about 3,000 red brick or whitewashed stupas dotting the landscape as the sky turned ablaze with hues of purple and grayish blues refracting off of the terra cotta and gold tones of the Buddhist shrines and pagodas that line the horizon. For another evening a multitude of tourists tightly gripped onto of pieces of the temple’s plaster coating, raking their hands over the frail sikhara to gain a better vantage point.
At nightfall, a few kilometers from Shwesandaw in a grassy expanse within the grounds of the Bagan Thande Hotel, which sits along the Eastern bank of the Irrawaddy River, archeology researcher Myo Nyunt Aung examined the hotel's grounds. Aung is a native of Bagan and he frowned as he noticed the broken top of a temple adjacent to the restaurant of the neighboring hotel.
"That shouldn't be," Myo Nyunt Aung said, leaning forward, sighing professorially.
Myanmar's tourism revenue has grown exponentially in the last few years since the apparent regime change from military to civilian rule. The question of whether the area, and its temples, can support the influx is a pressing one.
After growing up in the shadow of the thousands of temples in Bagan, the archeologist’s knowledge of his birthplace has taken him around the world. He excitedly explains, “Conservation is extremely important here. The people want to preserve these temples have studied all over the world, Cambodia, Thailand, the United States. I first studied in India when I began learning about conservation.”
Myo Nyunt Aung continued, “There will be greater opportunities for students in the community. More tourism will mean more people having more money. More kids will be able to afford to stay in school. While people will want to work in tourism, more kids will be able to become engineers, or doctors, and the community will grow.”
Yet simultaneously, he acknowledged, "The people, you know, are for conservation, not development or construction here. These are historic sites." He referred to protests that occurred in 2012, as the national government allowed the continued development of hotels in what were previously listed as archeological zones.
He said, “I believe that the answer is in education. Educating locals about how conservation can help the community, educating tourists about history… Finding a balance.”
Sitting back for a moment, he removed his wire frame glasses, squinted and rubbed his eyes. Taking a last look at the grounds, the river and the temple, he said, “I care about this place. It is my home.”
IN MANDALAY: A STRUGGLE FOR THE SOUL OF BUDDHISM
“If you've had a totalitarian state in place for decades and you lift the lid, all sorts of things come up to the surface. Look what happened after the fall of communism in the Soviet Union. All the changes in Eastern Europe. Suddenly you had neo-Nazis, skinheads, pornography, religious cults, all sorts of things come up to the surface after being oppressed for decades. To some extent you see the same thing happening here.” — Bertil Lintner, noted journalist with decades of experience covering Burmese politics and culture.
Long thought of as Burma’s intellectual hub, Mandalay, the former colonial capital, has supported a vibrant community of artists, intellectuals and political revolutionaries throughout the city’s history. Recently much discussion in the city has been about the outbursts of sporadic religiously motivated violence in surrounding areas like Meiktila.
Inter-religious violence led to the razing and burning of Muslim homes and shops throughout the town. Some 80 Muslim women and children were killed and burned. In the conflict’s wake, symbols of Buddhism including colorful sasana flags and 969 stickers abound. The Buddhist flags, a