Perhaps the most essential component of travel is experiencing a culture different than that of your own. In order to truly experience a culture you have to have at least a reasonable grip on its history and current events. I start this process long before I board my plane and jet off to a foreign land.
You wouldn't be able to truly grasp German culture without knowledge of WWII nor could you understand the Cuban psyche without learning of the Cuban Revolution. I am by no means suggesting that a PHD in history is required to travel, however awareness is essential. I have quite the affinity for history and politics so I enjoy this process greatly. Although I do review the history of a country, what truly interests me are current events, particularly events that may be overlooked by Western media.
I feel that learning about under-reported issues gives me a deeper understanding of the culture. Most people would be surprised at how much is overlooked by Western media.
For example, at present there is an armed insurgency in the South of Thailand, bombings and shootings are common, and tourists have been killed including a Canadian teacher. The conflict is a direct result of Thailand annexing what is now Southern Thailand from Malaysia in 1902. The conflict has gotten so out of hand that the Thai government has started to arm Buddhist citizens.
Though not quite under the radar as other issues in the region, the political strife in Burma was brought to the attention of the world most recently in September 2007. Most of the coverage centered around a peaceful uprising that happened in Burma.
You probably saw the images that were broadcast around the world of monks marching through the streets. These images were almost exclusively taken by a independent news organization called “Democratic Voice of Burma” (DVB). They are an organization in exile who sponsor undercover video journalists to secretly capture private and political life in Burma.
As the uprising grew, they did what other journalists could not, and thus gave strength and worldwide support to the movement. A film has been compiled together from the footage shot by DVB, and the result is Burma VJ, a gripping journey that takes the viewer through the history of rebellion in Burma, from the lead up of the uprising all the way through the brutal repression by the military. The story follows a single reporter exiled in Thailand, watching helplessly as his countrymen fight for their freedom. His scenes were recreated to lend dramatic effect and emotional weight to the film.
A few events in the film really struck me as unique and acutely interesting. While watching the film, you see the video of tens of thousands in the street shouting “Reconciliation now! Our cause! Our cause!” You are hit with a wave of emotion, from the voice of thousands you can feel their struggle and a voice of a nation emerging. What I found interesting was that the crowd was calling for negotiations and not the outright fall of the government. If I was in their situation, I would not have been so generous, and perhaps that highlights a stark difference between Western and Buddhist culture.
Later in the film, the issue of the military is highlighted. If they had joined the uprising, the government would have fallen. I expected hatred to be directed at the brutally oppressive military, yet only pity was expressed for the soldiers. Again, I believe this is a product of Burma's strong Buddhist culture.
Whether you are aware of Burma's political instability or not, Burma VJ is an amazing must watch for any traveler considering visiting the country. Not only will you be a better informed traveler, but you will see the country in a whole new light.
Burma VJ currently has limited showings in Europe with a few showings coming in the States later this year. Unfortunately most people will have to wait for a wider release or find the film through more dubious means. If you have the ability to see it don't rob yourself of this great experience.