Whenever the few tourists who visited Yin Myo Su’s village in the Inle Lake region of Myanmar lost their way, her neighbors brought them to her house to see if her father could help them since he was the only one around who could speak English.
“He had to always translate books or bus schedules,” Misuu, as she is known, said in a phone interview. “He ended up like a guide or translator. Sometimes we had to keep those who couldn’t catch a bus or car at our home [overnight].”
A pariah state ruled by a brutally oppressive military dictator, Myanmar was all but sealed off from international influence and foreign tourists until it opened up to the world in 2010. For decades, it was illegal — not to mention incredibly dangerous — to informally house foreigners, even those stranded hours away from the nearest city.
Eventually, however, Misuu’s father was able to obtain the government’s permission to open a small guesthouse, though, at the time, he could scarcely imagine how dramatically his five-bedroom operation would change the life of his eldest child.
Not only does his eldest daughter now run four resorts across the country through which she employs about 400 people, but she’s taken great strides to ensure that her resorts pose minimal damage to the environment, and that they showcase her local culture and traditions amid an influx of foreign tourists and investment.
While only a few thousand ventured into the country when her father ran his five-bedroom guesthouse, three million traveled to Myanmar last year. By 2020, the number of tourists to the country is expected to top seven million.
For Misuu, that’s a double-edged sword.
She sees tourism as an opportunity for people in Myanmar to learn from the outside world. That’s something she was lucky enough to be able to do from an early age.
“Being a curious person since I was a little girl, I asked a lot of questions,” Misuu recalls of her conversations with the foreigners who stayed at her father’s guesthouse. “Some questions [were ones that] my people in the country, the teachers at schools or even my own parents or grandparents couldn’t answer. The fact that these foreigners came was like a window to outside of the country. When I looked at those Time Magazines or Newsweeks or Readers Digest…I felt like there was something else beyond what we were doing in our village.”
Seeing images of high-rise buildings or the latest technology and reading articles about democratic elections or human rights made Misuu look at the world around her very differently, especially when she moved to the capital of her home state for school. In her village, most people worked agricultural jobs and were able to feed themselves with the fruits of their labor. In the capital city, extreme joblessness and abject poverty were pervasive realities of life in the country which is still among the world’s 25 poorest countries.
Her inquisitive nature soon led her to a burgeoning resistance movement among students around the country.
“All teenagers like to question a lot and to say ‘no.’” Misuu said, but her questions shifted from mere curiosities demands for answers from the country’s all-powerful military dictator. When her friends began to drop of out school because they couldn’t afford tuition or textbooks, Misuu wanted answers. Faced with bleak prospects even after their education as inflation and unemployment rates rose higher and higher, students across the country began to agitate for change.
An altercation at a tea shop between a student and government officials provided the spark that was needed to ignite a movement. After weeks of organizing, students led a nationwide strike on August 8, 1988, or, as the fateful day came to be known, 8888.
Thousands of people marched through the streets cities across Myanmar chanting, “End the military dictatorship: Our cause, our cause! To set up democracy: Our cause, our cause!”
Soon after the protests is when opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi stepped on to the national stage with a riveting speech at the Shwedagon Pagoda. Some of those who listened to Suu Kyi, referred to by many in Myanmar only as “The Lady,” were skeptical. Although she was the daughter of a key independence leader, she had spent much of her life abroad, far from the despotism of the country’s dictator, General Ne Win.
Misuu, however was hopeful.
“The Lady was so important to us,” she said of those turbulent days. “We were still thinking that some hero would come and save us.”
But Suu Kyi was not able to immediately steer the country towards democracy.
While the notorious dictator resigned as party leader, he did so with an ominous warning. “When the army shoots,” he said, “It shoots to kill.”
In September, the army made good on General Ne Win’s words. Just after the people of Myanmar overwhelmingly voted in favor of a multi-party system of government, another military general wrested power through a coup and clamped down on dissent with even less mercy than his predecessor had shown.
Just six weeks after 8888, some 3,000 protesters were killed and thousands of others jailed.
Misuu survived, but not without facing very real loss.
She counts herself among the lucky ones; with the help of some of the friends her father made through his guesthouse, Misuu was able to travel to Switzerland and then to France to study, and with the urging of her father, she decided to study hotel management. She says that the subject was in her DNA from the start, but the landscape for hoteliers has changed dramatically since the military began to loosen it’s grip on power. Misuu is grateful for the shift towards democracy, although she recognizes that it’s come with its own challenges.
“Now the country is opening up. It’s quite worrisome because it’s human nature to [want to] grow,” she said, noting that trying to grow too quickly could undermine the country’s heritage and environment.
The international community’s sanctions of Myanmar’s military rulers kept many foreigners from engaging with the country. While its isolation meant that oppression and persecution within its borders went unchecked, it also meant that that the country’s culture and landscape were relatively untainted by outside influence. The “authentic” aura that its now known for makes it appealing to tourists.
Foreign corporations are capitalizing on the country’s boom in tourism. Hilton hotels, for example, signed an agreement to build five hotels and resorts in Myanmar last January.
Although she’s skeptical of such investments, Misuu doesn’t write them off entirely.
“I don’t blame big companies,” she said. “They do create jobs. They can do a lot, a lot more than us [small businesses], but I don’t want the local people who have been there forever to lose hope. We have been through [the reign] of a regime that, when it had power and money, it did what it wanted, and always it worked for its own advantage. Now we have true capitalism [taking root] and some of our local people and villagers think that only big companies will gain.”
Misuu still sees tourism as an opportunity for people in Myanmar to learn from the outside world, just as she did all those years ago in her father’s guesthouse. But she says, she hopes tourists also learn from the country’s collective values — and also it’s rich heritage.
“The tourists and whoever else is coming from outside [Myanmar] are teaching us by asking questions [to which] we have to find answers,” she said. “So you have to learn what people are doing abroad, what is improving [things] and what is not, so you learn. By being willing to reply to the demand, you learn to improve yourself. Sometimes they are challenging also, so you have to adapt which is good. On the other hand we also need to teach them. If we are not transparent, they don’t know how to help us or how to act with us, so it’s a two-way street. They need to learn to respect our people and culture [but] we also have to know what we want so that we can tell them please do that, but please don’t do that.”
For her part, Misuu is doing all that she can to ensure that the rampant influx of foreign tourists and investors won’t undermine local traditions or businesses — and to ensure that visitors leave with a strong sense of all her country has to offer.
She started a program to breed Burmese cats which had all but vanished by the 1930s due to interbreeding. She also started aquariums to safeguard and showcase fish indigenous to Inle Lake where her family ran its first guesthouse and where she now runs an eco-resort.
And there have been some larger scale victories. Last month, the lake was named Myanmar’s first Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.
Many of the efforts have been led by individuals, civil society organizations, and local businesses. Misuu wishes the government would do more to initiate and enforce measures to regulate how much of an impact foreign corporations can have on Myanmar, but she doesn’t plan to wait on the government, “They have 60 years of homework that they haven’t done. They are so busy, that in the private sector, we should be setting up this [example].”
While much has improved for the better, there are still many worrying signs for Myanmar. Although the country released almost all of its political prisoners, and restored a free press and the right to organize into labor unions, many, including Aung San Suu Kyi, feel the country is still not a functioning democracy. The popular opposition will not be allowed to contest elections because of a provision in the country’s constitution which many feel was meant to bar the Nobel Laureate from politics. The plight of the the Rohingya, an ethnic minority who have risked their lives to flee Myanmar by the thousands is another major concern, one that some rights’ groups have warned might turn in to an all out genocide if left unchecked.
Wary of these issues, Misuu is trying to do what she can to leave Myanmar better for the future.
“If I can make a difference, if I can make a good choice, why shouldn’t I be implementing that in my daily life?”