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The World's Secret Garden

By Danica Taylor

Myanmar’s dynamic cultural and political influences leave it with a very unique structure of vernacular and transnational architecture. While walking from our hotel towards the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Sarah, my travel buddy, and I covered a vast majority of Yangon's landscapes. There were large beautiful parks, with lakes in the middle and people relaxing along side the water. There were old colonial style buildings that had been closed off for decades, giving it a sense of a secret garden, locked away from the public. They were overrun with vines and vegetation; we could barely see the ornate details in some of the structures. We also passed old university buildings, although there were no signs in front of the gates. As Donald Seekins explained in “The State and the City: 1988 and the Transformation of Rangoon,” the government has been “changing the symbolic meanings of certain spaces…to sever or neutralize their historical connections with revolutionary nationalism” (pg. 2). Yet we knew when we were passing the gates. First of all, as university students, we could just feel a campus’ architecture, but more so because while walking along the sidewalk we were ushered to the other side of the road by a military man guarding the entrance into the area. This was a clear demonstration of the military junta's determination to keep their past economic stability behind closed doors, especially to two young American women tourists.

        In contrast to the old stark architecture, there were also transnational corporations like Tokyo Chicken, and Tokyo Donuts, with colors and marketing schemes identical to the US counterparts of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Dunkin Donuts. These are perfect examples of Seekins’ description of the military junta's attempts to open up the country to westernization solely for the economic wealth globalization will bring to the country (the government). All over the place there were locals trying to sell us everything and anything that would be sold in any other market. There was also a local movie theatre that on a Sunday night had a line of people around the corner waiting to see Pirate’s of the Caribbean 2.
All of these situations led you to believe that you were in any other developing nation. There were clear efforts of westernization, but it was what lay behind these efforts that added a whole other dimension to the complexity of the country.

        The fact that the people of the country are not allowed to dress freely, not allowed to speak freely, and can’t even travel freely within their country say nothing about travel outside of country borders is appalling. We met a man named “Bobbie” walking up the stairs to the Shwe Dagon Pagoda. Later we learned that "Bobbie" was a retired electrician. Therefore, he has no income and no job. There is no such thing as social security or government assistance. Any and all money that the military junta gets their hads on goes straight to their pockets, the people see no evidence of any national profits. Although poor and jobless, "Bobbie" still volunteered to show us around and enlighten us about the Shwe Dagon pagoda and Buddhism. Every day he comes to the pagoda to meditate for about two hours, he said “it’s the only way I can find clarity in my town that has changed so much that I no longer feel I am a part of". Just listening to him talk about his life and the challenges he has been faced with was eye-opening. He took the two of us out to dinner and while we were drinking tea he gave each of us a Kyat bill worth 1kyat. This was the currency used before the military junta devalued the money and made the new currency based on 1000 denominations. On the front of the bill is a photo of Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, the leader of Burma’s socialist democracy prior to his daughter’s attempts toward freeing Burma into a democratic nation.
        Although not all these examples are of specific architectural elements, I truly feel that they are all representations of  Myanmar when it was experiencing its first stages of globalization 20 years ago, before the military seized control over the people. I wrote in my
Flaneur’s diary that it seems Burma has experienced a digression of transnationalism in the past decade. Prior to 1988 there was a more significant role of globalization, colonization, economic trade and wealth than there is now. The buildings, roads, street lights, and access to the once largest exporter of rice is evident. Yangon, Burma had, and has, all the necessary elements to become a global city. The military junta has isolated a wonderful place from the world. The Burmese are the most kind and welcoming people I have ever met, their country holds so much potential and yet they have so far to come. Burma to me seems like the world's secret garden. Secluding all it has to offer and all the possibilities of success and growth from the world.  Burma has all the necessary elements of being a global nation, but until the government allows its people the liberty to be free, Burma will remain as the world's secret garden in my heart. 

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