on the silk route 2010 / 2012


This is my diary for the Dutch radioprogram Andere tijden. Click here for the dutch version of this report and a link to the radiobroadcast. Sulky made it back to the Netherlands by ship from Bombay. Anyone interested to take care of the little hero can apply for hosting.

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October 13

Despite numerous border crossings with Thailand, Laos, China, India and Bangladesh you can only enter Myanmar via the airport of the capital Yangon. My visa is arranged in Bangkok, this is the most common hub to Yangon. It’s always a bit exciting to enter Burma, tourists pick up their visas at the embassy and curiously examine the result. Experienced visitors to Burma are never assured of approval according their activities. My main goal is founding a new microcredit-network for Culture for Microcredit. Burma is the last leg of my journey along the silk route. I drove a minicar with 30 km per hour to India, I visited several charities along the way and I ask attention for the humanitarian situation in Burma. I also raise money for the project I am about to set. In the airplane I already find out about the Burmese hospitality. I sit next to a guy who has just returned from the Czech Republic where he studied three months. It strikes me that in this public space he speaks openly about the limitations of his country. He comes from Chin State in northwestern Burma, a state that is predominantly Christian. Like most of Burma, this is not accessible to me as a foreigner.

October 14
I meet a Swiss guy who is here for the gems trade. He tells me that the finest rubies come from Burma and that as many as 90% of the world’s rubies come from Burmese mines. The gems trade is one of the main financial sources of the military government. Together we try to find the black market to U.S. dollar exchange. The official exchange rate at the bank is about 400 times lower than the true value of the kyat so all tourists and locals find their way on the black market. After asking around at the regular places the black market seems not to exist anymore, even the jewelry traders can’t help us.  I’m hungry and hurry is a dangerous motivation to change money in Burma. Fortunately, my Swiss friend has some Kyats. We drink tea and order a Burmese noodle soup before we reopen our pursuit to money.

October 15
Street life starts early in Yangon. Numerous vendors shout their offers in my ear. Downtown Yangon I see the typical frenetic scenes of the capital of a developing country. There are no soldiers on the streets. When I make a chat with someone a man listens obvious to our conversation. Is he secret police, or simply a curious passenger? The black money market moved to an official exchange office where six state banks now pay the actual market-rate. Each note is carefully inspected. Clean hundred dollar bills without folding provide the best rate. After 2 days I finally got my money changed.

October 16, 2011
I book my flight to Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State in western Burma. I prefer to travel over land, this is not possible without special permission. Rakhine or Arakanese are one of the ethnic minorities in Burma with a strong urge to self-governance. Rakhine State was the first region colonized by the English in the 19th century and therefore had always had a privileged position in many important posts in Burma. Today these priviliges are reversed and the region is even according Burmese terms undeveloped. The water supply in the city is still from the British time and no longer updated or adapted to present needs.

17  October
The morning flight to Sittwe is an experience itself. The view over the Irrawaddy-delta confirms the status of Burma as the world’s granary. However, since the military took power in 1962, the value of rice exports decreased to 15% of the initial quantity because of mismanagement and corruption. It is hot when I arrive; The streets are filled with triksha’s, bicycletaxis. The drivers have a darker complexion then the local rakhine. Most are immigrants from Bangladesh, who seek their fortune in the less densely populated Rakhine state.

October 18
In the morning I visit the cooperative that manages our microcredit fund. I am translated by the contact person of Culture for Microcredit with the beautiful Arakanese name: Maung Nyint Sein. I am pleasantly surprised by the organization’s skills. The cooperative supports with a capital of 15,000 euros more than 400 vulnerable women entrepreneurs. Based on the microfinance theory by Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunuz this vulnerable group gets a chance to build a savings capital what normally would be lost to the monthly rate of 20 percent of the loan. Currently this is only 2.5%. Moreover, the cooperative offers an annual savings interest of 12.5%. There is informative sessions and all beneficiaries are member of a self-help group which guarantees payback because they are responsible as a group.

October 19

Today’s appointments are largely canceled because of a mild hurricane over Rakhine State. In recent years, the Burmese coast is ravaged by hurricanes like Nargis and Giri. Reconstruction of basic necessities develops very slowly, especially since the international community disaster funds have dried up. The resistance of the military government is painful. Assistance was offered by various international organizations but widely rejected by the government because of fear of foreign interference and the visibility of their own failure to support the population. In the delta of the Irrawaddy-river only 5% of the 900 destroyed schools are rebuilt after 3 years.
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