Kevin Pilley returned from Myanmar the day before the first UK lockdown. Over a year later, he is still in touch with a travel agent he met on a Pandaw River Cruise from Mandalay to Bagan. She sends him photos of what’s going on there.
From Room 6C on the sixth floor at No 41/a royal Moe Sanar Condo, Moe Sandar Street, in the Kamaryu township of Yangon, Mrs Nwe Nwe Khine runs Myanmar Damsel Travels & Tours.
But she is in distress. And never in the office now.
She has been participating in the protests against the military junta every day since February 1st.
“Our generation – fifty and above – are so proud of the Z Generation and Y Generation! How smart and incredible they are! They have unity, intelligence, creativity and discipline. We really respect them.
“All classes and all ages are involved in the demonstration. Even monks, Buddhist nuns, Muslins, Hindu, Christian, trishaw drivers, lawyers and students. Every night at 8pm we all go out into the streets to bang our pots and pans as loudly as we can. This is our form of peaceful disobedience.
“Our leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-we also call her as mother of our country, civilians leader, leader of our country, and mother of Union of Myanmar- formed the NLD Youth Network formation four years ago and now this association is leading all demonstrations which against the military.
“The way they protest is not like in Hong Kong and Thailand. We have rubbish collecting team collect the rubbish on the main roads after demonstrations. Medical teams, road guides, road clearance and even slogan chant leaders! And in the background, we have the most important of all – the keyboard fighters.
“They have found out all about the police officer who shot the 19 years old girl protester – a 2nd year computer university student in Naypyitaw. They are drawing up a blacklist to hold people accountable.
“In 1988 during the big general protests, we had the leaders Ko Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Moe The Zun, Ko Jimmy (all university students). But in 2021 we have a more structured, more organized modern way to protest.
“Dictatorship is even more dangerous than Covid-19. We are all fighting for our elected leaders. Our future. The past must not return. Our mother has always protected us in many ways and treated us like our own parents would.”
Nwe Nwe (meaning “vine”) must be one of the hardest-working travel agents in the world as she is every day trying to convince the world that her home country is safe, stable and ethically worth visiting.
There are 3,278 licensed tour operators/agents now in Myanmar. Only about 500,000 nationals are able to travel outbound. Mainly to Singapore, Hong Kong, India and Sri Lanka.
Nwe Nwe is the sixth daughter of a politician from the mid-Burma province of Purint Phy. A botany graduate, she opened her travel agency with her husband Zaw Win Moe in 2006. Previously she worked for a German travel agency for sixteen years.
Following Covid, Myanmar’s in-bound foreign tourist arrivals had been predicted to fall by 80% and after the recent coup it is set to shrink to virtually nothing. The biggest sector – the Chinese – have stopped coming and cancellations are all Nwe Nwe receives.
She doesn’t get any enquiries anymore. Online or by phone. Myamar’s pariah status has been reinforced. The trekking and culture holidays, railway tours, river cruises and balloons over Bagan are all on hold.
“The Rohingya issue is of course another challenge for all foreign investment and industries in Myanmar, especially tourism. We know the meaning of isolation. We know the meaning of benighted. Of oppression. But we fight on against the newspaper boycotts and the preconceptions that our country is dangerous, unstable and bad. We are returning to the bad times. To a bad reputation. Which is undeserved.
“Myanmar is still an unknown country compared to our neighbouring countries like Thailand, Singapore, and Cambodia. People were beginning to show an interest and tourism was beginning to boom. Then came the ICJ court case and then Covid and now the coup. People think the country is not safe and there is fighting and conflict everywhere. Seeing is believing. Rakhine is the only real no-go area. Every country had no go areas.
“Myanmar is a poor country we cannot promote tourism widely and cannot spend lots of money for tourism promotion. We have no amusement parks or safaris, so family packages are impossible to sell. Infrastructure and facilities in Myanmar are not perfect but they were beginning to improve and were selling package tours for the guests from all over the world – Scandinavian, US, Australia, UK, Europe, Canada, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and so on. I arranged a tour for the Polish Ambassador and his delegation. Now I have no bookings.
“All I can do to try and get them back is bang a pot or a pan. It is an unusual and desperate way of advertising.”
Kevin Pilley is a former professional cricketer and chief staff writer of PUNCH magazine. His humour, travel, food and drink work appears worldwide and he has been published in over 800 titles.