On the front line, charged with nervous energy and the power of the people, 18 year old Myo Zaw Oo from north-central Burma paraded the walkways of his hometown. Holding a taut screen of blue, yellow, red, white and pink cloth, Myo carried the emblematic colours of the Burmese Buddhist flag proudly across his chest. At the time, Myo knew nothing of the torture, abuse and struggle for survival he would soon face for his involvement in the protests.
It was 2007 and the political climate in military-ruled Burma had hit boiling point. Recent government-induced hikes on fuel prices coupled with long-set poverty had become the last straw for many living under harsh dictatorship. Public outcry triggered the biggest nationwide protests in Burma since the popular uprising in 1988.
Myo, a young and fit geography university student and the son of a business man, fronted pulsing lines of angry yet peaceful protestors, many daring for the first time to express their dissatisfaction with the ruthless government. On the second day of the protests, buzzing with the spirit of revolution, Myo was designated to work as a security guard scouting out areas safe for the mob. It was not long into the afternoon when Myo was caught by plain-clothed officers, arrested and thrown into jail.
The torture – synonymous with the Burmese army’s tyranny – began with three days of sleep deprivation, by the use of ear-piercing gongs and buckets of boiling or freezing water. Next were severe beatings and the rolling of metal bars against his shins. His face and body were wracked with wounds. Myo could barely recognise himself beneath the swelling and bruising. His lower back was particularly damaged from endless whippings. Today, in the same place, wide shiny scars remain; the tattoos of brutality.
Prison guards antagonised him, demanding information about other local activists, but Myo refused interrogation, despite the brutal methods of their torment. After over a week of violent affliction and mental torture, Myo was taken upcountry and forced into slave labour. The manual road building was excruciating. Prisoners slept outside in the elements, allotted only a couple of inches of drinking water per day. Suffering severe physical and mental agony, Myo finally signed his captor’s agreement, promising he would never again get involved in politics.
At last, Myo was sent home, though not before one last brutality. He was made to drink poisonous liquid mercury dissolved in water.
Over a month after his disappearance, Myo’s despairing family had taken him for dead. When he finally did return home, Myo was dazed and confused. He did not even recognise his own family; the brain-rotting effects of the mercury blurred his memory.
After four months of lying still on his front while his family treated the lacerations on his back, Myo eventually recovered, and returned to his life burning with rage for his abusers. He visited a local pro-democracy group, wanting to do anything he could to help the cause, and began distributing Aung San Suu Kyi literature – risky business for anyone recently imprisoned and tortured on political charges. On one of his morning rounds, Myo was informed by a policeman friend about the warrant out for his arrest. With no time to spare, Myo took the only safe option and escaped across the border to Thailand.
In Thailand, Myo was confronted with a new challenge: survival. Unable to speak Thai and knowing not one soul in the new country, he landed in Mae Sot and found heavy labour work on a construction site where he earned 45 baht per day. After a series of other jobs, Myo felt the squeeze of tough employers and high rent. He eventually relocated to Chiang Mai, where a Thai recruiter promised him work.
After paying a hefty lump sum to the recruiter, Myo was dumped at a petrol station in Lamphun, where he was promised 5000 baht per month. As the only Burmese worker at the station, Myo was bullied by other employees who would taunt him and throw dirt into his food at mealtimes.
At the end of his first month of work, Myo approached his employer for his well-earned wages. The boss recoiled in shock, saying that his first two month’s salary had already been taken by the recruiter. It turned out that the recruiter had told her Myo was his brother who was recovering from drug addiction and had promised to work at the station to repay his debts. In addition to the lump sum he required at the beginning, the recruiter had conned Myo out of his own wages.
Two years ago, Myo began working at The Best Friend Library, a Burmese information centre in Chiang Mai. There he met his partner, Dr. Andrea Valentin, an expert in Burmese tourism and the founder and director of an NGO called Tourism Transparency, where Myo now works as a researcher.
Tourism in Burma was previously boycotted by many to avoid lining the military government’s deep pockets. Today, the tables have turned. Suu Kyi now welcomes tourists to Burma, providing they visit responsibly. The recent opening up of Burma has seen an influx of foreign visitors which the country’s hotels and infrastructure are struggling to accommodate. Clearly, Burma has momentous tourism potential, and the recent influx has caused many to view tourism as a get rich quick mechanism. As such, many stakeholders and observers have articulated concerns over the unsustainable development of Burmese tourism.
Drawing from his own life experiences, Myo is determined to use his new career to make a positive difference for his fellow countrymen and homeland. Passionate about his work for Tourism Transparency, Myo believes his country has much to offer visitors. He advocates sustainable, responsible and ethical tourism on the part of the industry and the tourists themselves, and he utilises his own knowledge of Burmese people, places, language and cultures in his investigation and analysis of tourism in Burma.
Tourism Transparency offers practical advice on how to travel in Burma by means of contributing to local people and communities, as well as highlighting the impacts of tourism, raising political awareness and providing a platform for debate. The organisation works alongside civil society groups and travel companies with the aim to encourage a transparent and responsible Burmese tourism industry.
Currently, there are very few tourism businesses in Burma that are actually sustainable. However, by educating travellers and raising awareness of the impacts of tourism, Tourism Transparency is making a positive step towards the proper development of tourism, and the country as a whole.
Since moving to Chiang Mai, Myo’s quality of life has greatly improved. He now speaks Thai and English fluently, and shares his story with others to spread awareness of Burma’s political situation as well as the plight of Burmese migrants in Thailand. He believes the more people who are conscious of mistreatment, exploitation and social inequality, the more we will be able to improve the societies we live in.
Last year, Myo was able to return to Burma. After being interviewed for four hours by the secret police, his visit was approved and he was finally allowed to see his family again. He now calls them from Thailand monthly.
Myo’s story, like many other migrants from Burma, began in a way described quite eloquently by an old Thai saying: nee sua paak jarakay or ‘escape from the tiger, to the mouth of the crocodile’. Or, in a phrase more familiar to us farang, ‘from the frying pan into the fire.’ But today, Myo’s experiences have enabled him to further his quest towards democracy and a positive future for his country.