Long closed off from the world, Myanmar (formerly Burma) has recently opened its boarders, with opportunities emerging alongside development for conservation. Two years ago, I was offered the opportunity to travel to this mysterious country to consult for an NGO in the early stages of developing a marine protected area. My task was to lead the stakeholder consultations, which would involve spending some time on Myanmar’s coast and islands (tough, I know!), trying to gather an understanding of how marine resource users interact with the ocean.
I’d been offered an exciting and privileged position because island tourism had not yet opened up to the international public. On my first trip out to the islands, the archipelago’s beauty struck me hard, as did the patience and willingness to engage that the people displayed. But such a simplistic description of the island communities would not do them justice. JS Furnivall describes Myanmar as a “plural society”; a society combining ethnic contrasts that have emerged from colonial rule. There are a multitude of ethnic groups residing throughout the country and I’d thoroughly recommend reading Richard Cockett’s Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma for a well-informed overview of the cultural makeup and history of Myanmar.
The islands where I was working encompassed a mixture of Bamar, Karen and Moken (semi-nomadic ocean dwellers living in Myanmar and Thailand) cultures. Mapping out fishing areas with these distinctive stakeholder groups taught me that there are many different ways to interpret and understand the natural world. As I approached each meeting I endeavoured to remain open to different ways of explaining natural resource use, and I quickly discovered that concepts of time and space are not always the same. It was therefore vital for me to listen carefully and not make any assumptions based on my own preconceptions. This has been, and continues to be, an enormous learning experience for me.
I also became an expert on spending hours on end at the local tea houses. Time flows at a different pace on the islands, and whether or not I had a daily agenda means very little when you’re running on island time. So, I learnt patience (and which tea house serves the best 3-in-1 coffees). You could say I habituated myself quite thoroughly!
I have been back to Myanmar eight times since then, which includes to conduct my PhD field work. This alluring country has taken me in, and I am fortunate to have spent time there during this transition period of an emerging nation. It’s difficult to anticipate where these communities will be as Myanmar opens up to the rest of the world, but ensuring stakeholders are engaged in the process, and resource users are understood, allows for the greatest potential for sustainable development on the islands of Myanmar.