At the airport in Thandwe, there were a few older sun-poisoned Europeans, and then there was one girl who stood out. She looked European, was tall, tanned, and athletic. We started chatting, and this was how I met Cordelia, a Swiss girl from MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres, Doctors Without Borders). She was working in some really remote areas in Rakhaing State near the border with Bangladesh. Turned out she was exactly the kind of person I wanted to be speaking with.
Burma has had the grand majority of NGOs pull out of the country due to human rights abuses, and the ironic claim by the government that everything is ok and that they don’t need help. Perhaps this contributes to the difficulties in Burma; everything is presentation, and very little thought is given to what the actual situation is. People are told to smile, to put their best face forward, to make sure that nobody can tell that you are hungry, sick, and tired. There are entire propaganda speeches and publications on this topic of showing the West how developed and happy they are. So, NGOs come in, look around, and see that everything looks fine, and leave. According to Cordelia, the medical system is a disaster. There are numerous different strains of malaria, and people get infected all the time. They may build up resistance to it, often choosing to not get treatment due to financial issues, and instead stay mildly sick for weeks on end. When using antibiotics, even if a doctor tells people to use the full course, which would cost 1USD, people choose to stop taking the drug as soon as the symptoms subside, causing the sickness to recur and the body to build resistance to the drug.
We arrived in Sittwe, and as expected, Zaw Lin Oo was waiting at the airport. Lonely Planet mentions how there is one licensed guide in Sittwe who is taking commissions off every service provider (hotel, trishaw, taxi, boat) in BOTH Sittwe and Mrauk U. In Ngapali, I met a German couple who had been to Mrauk U the previous year and they mentioned that in Sittwe, I would find a wonderful guide waiting at the airport and I should definitely go with him. He takes you everywhere, he knows so much, and it’s free! I thought it sounded strange, but it didn't register with me. It was only when I was re-reading the section on Sittwe that I realized he must be the guide that LP talks about. And man, was he pushy. It surprised me that he was able to come all the way into the airport, past security and baggge claim. In fact, he was the only person that was able to do so – all other drivers, friends, family, hotel workers, and would-be guides were patiently waiting behind closed doors. It just so happened that I was the only tourist on board the plane. He went after Cordelia too but she said her MSF driver was there and so I was on my own. This increased the pressure because if he didn't get me for business that day, he’d go home empty-handed. I insisted that I had everything set up already, that I knew where I was going to stay, and kept walking past. He was relentless, demanding to know who had supposedly stepped in his territory. He suggested that we share a taxi together so that it would be cheaper, but it was obvious that he was doing that so he could find out where I was going to stay. Finally, he sped off in a taxi.
I had made quite a scene at the airport (or he made the scene and I was part of it) and by this time, everyone was just watching me, mildly interested. I wasn't sure whose side people were going to be on so I went over to the trishaws to try and get a ride into town. An English-speaking guide came over to me and I was really defensive. He showed me a piece of paper from the tourism board talking about Zaw Lin Oo and how they were trying to stop his monopoly. It’s really a horribly sad situation. There are so few independent tourists getting all the way out to Sittwe and Mrauk U (as my detour in Thandwe and Ngapali suggest, it’s not the easiest of trips to make), and for one person to be taking all the money from it, as well as being pushy about it, is just despicable. I explained to the man that I was quite comfortable without a guide and I was sorry for doubting him, and I think it was ok.
I found a trishaw driver who took me to the Prince Hotel. My first mission was to find out about boats to Mrauk U, as I had just missed the government ferry going upriver. I got a trishaw down to the jetty where a small crowd of men laughed gently at me, saying I had already missed the boat, so they said, tomorrow-tomorrow-tomorrow. Hmm, I would have to wait 3 days. I had read/heard that there were private boats usually going up everyday and I could probably get a ride on one. I asked around and did find someone who planned to go the next day, but he wanted about 8 times the price of the government boat. I tentatively told him I would be there at 6am, and left. I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around aimlessly, getting lost. Sittwe is very lived-in. It’s not a tourist city, and due to its stature as the capital of Rakhaing State, it has attracted a large variety of people, including a very large population from Bangladesh.
I went to find an internet place, and the man there told me that there was a man across the road who had lived in Tokyo for 7 years. I was curious, and really had nothing else to do, so I went over to chat with him. I was instantly invited to sit and chat. He has asked me not to reveal his name or profession, so unfortunately I cannot explain what he was doing while we spoke.
And speak he did. it was as if he had a whole fountain inside of him that was waiting to spurt out, and he had finally found a good outlet. He claimed confidently that although the government spies could understand terms in English, they didn't have a clue in Japanese. So it was that I spoke the most Japanese since I had left Japan a month earlier. I was interested in politics, and he was too, so he gave me a brief history of the political climate specifically in Rakhaing State. He was surprised at how much I knew of the political history of the past fifty years throughout the country as a whole. The Arakan League for Democracy used to exist, but it was made illegal in the 80’s, when the NLD was gaining too much popularity. There was an NLD office in Sittwe previously, with just two men working there, day in, day out. One of them was sent to jail for political dissent, and the other died (of old age or government intervention, no one was quite sure). Spies were everywhere; at one point in the 90’s it had gotten to a point where government would publicly announce their positions, threatening to tell report people to the government as dissidents unless they paid hefty fees.
Through all this, I was wondering, how did he get to Japan, and why was he back in Burma? Without asking, he told me that his mother was getting old and after 7 years in Japan, she was ready to see him again. He came back, essentially for her, and she passed away shortly thereafter. He is now married with a 3 year old daughter. When I asked whether or not he would rather still be in Japan, he said with a sad smile, “There is no point in thinking about things like that because it is not possible.”