One year ago, the country of Myanmar took a historic step toward freedom by electing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament. The event signified a major breakthrough for a nation once ruled by an oppressive military junta, and it gave hope to the millions of people who were cut off from the outside world for five long and brutal decades.
Myanmar has made a lot of progress in the past 12 months, but the country still has a long way to go until it can be called a legitimate democracy. Still, that doesn’t seem to faze the nation’s young people who are bursting with optimism for the future.
Here are ten things I will never forget about my trip to Myanmar:
1. Getting a Visa
Just when my chances of making it to Myanmar seemed grim, the man at the NYC consulate pulled through!! (Allowing journalists into the country is a relatively new concept, so I was thrilled to have official permission to make the trip.)
2. Interviewing a Former Political Prisoner
Aung Aung Kyaw spent three years of his life in prison for speaking out against the government. But instead of shutting his mouth, he now spends his time promoting democracy and encouraging other young people to fight for freedom on Facebook.
3. Visiting a School
I have never seen students so excited to learn in my life. Education is a luxury.
4. Shooting a Stand-Up on the Streets of Yangon
In 2007, Buddhist monks were killed while marching down the streets of Yangon in a peaceful anti-government protest, and a Japanese reporter was also killed for covering the event. The fact that an American journalist can set up a camera and shoot stand-ups in the same exact place just a few years later is a true sign of change in the country.
5. Filming Some of the Country’s Very First ATMs
Yep, it’s true — people are pumped to finally have pin numbers.
6. Watching Little Girls Collect Money for a Monastery
Filling in the gaps left by the government, monasteries in Myanmar often serve as shelters, distribution centers and schools for the poor. Because they aren’t funded by the public, they rely on private donations, and during my trip I saw long lines of little girls collecting money on the streets.
7. Visiting Shwedagon Pagoda
This sacred site has been around for more than 2,600 years, and it still dominates the skyline of Yangon. Despite its “touristy” feel, I thoroughly enjoyed my stroll through the pagoda’s golden hallways.
8. Getting Food Poisoning
9. The Excitement Surrounding President Obama’s Visit
President Obama is the first US president to visit Myanmar since the military junta took control, so his face was EVERYWHERE leading up to his trip. Newspaper covers, television shows, massive murals on the side of the road – you name it, Mr. Obama’s face graced it.
10. Spending a Day with Mya
We featured Mya in our “24/17″ segment, so she let me tag along and film a day in her 17 year-old life. Just like 1/3 of the people in Myanmar, Mya’s family lives in poverty — but even though she doesn’t have electricity, a bedroom, or running water, she had no shame in showing me around her home. Mya is proof that the material doesn’t matter, and her big smile is something money can’t buy.