MYAN­MAR

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are owned by In­tha, ac­cord­ing to to­mato trader U Tin Soe. Early last year, he and other In­tha busi­ness­peo­ple tried to set up a pub­lic com­pany that would have sold shares and in­vested the pro­ceeds in tourism busi­nesses. He blames a lack of sup­port from the gov­ern­ment and dis­unity within the In­tha com­mu­nity for the project’s fail­ure.

“Tourism is boom­ing, but it’s mo­nop­o­lized by big busi­ness­peo­ple. Lo­cals want to get in­volved but lack the cap­i­tal, and be­cause of this they do not think tourism is good. None of the profit goes to them,” he says, adding that ed­u­ca­tion is key to im­prov­ing the In­tha’s prospects. “The ho­tels mostly hire peo­ple from other ar­eas and do not bother to train lo­cals. Un­less we train them, this is never go­ing to change.”

Yet a few green shoots are ap­pear­ing. U Ohn Maung, owner of the Inle Princess Re­sort and one of the lake’s two In­tha hote­liers, has es­tab­lished a hos­pi­tal­ity train­ing school at the In­thar Her­itage House, a cul­tural cen­ter near Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda. It aims to teach be­tween 40 and 50 stu­dents each year. And a Tourism Master Plan re­leased in Septem­ber 2013 and drafted with the Asian De­vel­op­ment Bank calls for a US$ 8 mil­lion in­vest­ment in an­other vo­ca­tional in­sti­tute, with an ad­di­tional US$ 35 mil­lion to be spent on wastew­a­ter treat­ment and roads.

When (and if) that money ma­te­ri­al­izes, no one can say, but at least some lo­cal en­ter­prises are al­ready ben­e­fit­ing from Inle’s brisk tourist trade. Near Samka, on the south­ern end of the lake, I meet a young man called Sai Sai, who runs a rice-wine dis­tillery pro­duc­ing what he la­bels “Jun­gle Rum”; its logo fea­tures a mon­key swing­ing through the trees. While the busi­ness has been in the fam­ily for four gen­er­a­tions, sales be­gan pick­ing up af­ter the area opened to tourists in 2004. To­day he sells as much as100 liters a day to vis­i­tors, who down the clear, harsh liquor over lunch at com­mu­nal ta­bles be­fore buy­ing bot­tles to take home as sou­venirs. “A few years ago I came back from a ho­tel to work here with my fam­ily,” he says. He has since called more of his rel­a­tives home to join him, rev­ers­ing the all-too-com­mon out­flow of young peo­ple from vil­lages. “We like it here,” he says, wrap­ping an arm around his wife. “Busi­ness is get­ting bet­ter all the time.”

FOR A PRIMER on In­tha cul­ture, I take a boat to the In­thar Her­itage House. Ris­ing two sto­ries above an is­land of re­claimed land and built in the ver­nac­u­lar style from sal­vaged tim­ber, the prop­erty con­tains a li­brary, in­for­ma­tion dis­plays, a slew of Burmese cats, and a restau­rant fea­tur­ing pro­duce from an ad­ja­cent or­ganic gar­den. Up­stairs is a re-cre­ation of a tra­di­tional In­tha home: the liv­ing room is at the front, and con­tains a Bud­dhist shrine; the kitchen is on the right side as you en­ter; and the sleep­ing quar­ters are at the back, com­pris­ing a sin­gle shared bed­room.

To­day, wealth­ier In­tha fam­i­lies tend to paint their houses in bright colors, and ac­cess to elec­tric­ity in re­cent decades has, of course, brought both light and nightly South Korean soap op­eras to many in the lake’s main set­tle­ments. An­other as­pect of life that has changed is pol­i­tics. Lo­cal eth­nic lead­ers formed the Inn Na­tion­al­i­ties De­vel­op­ment Party to con­test the con­tro­ver­sial 2010 elec­tions, which were boy­cotted by Aung San Suu Kyi’s Na­tional League for Democ­racy. The In­tha party won four seats, in­clud­ing one for an In­tha af­fairs min­is­ter in the Shan State gov­ern­ment. While the party is not uni­ver­sally ad­mired within the In­tha com­mu­nity, it has at least pro­vided them with rep­re­sen­ta­tion on the na­tional level.

I meet the son of the In­tha af­fairs min­is­ter, Yae Aye, at the party’s head of­fice in Nyaung­shwe. He looks ex­hausted from the In­tha Day fes­tiv­i­ties, which went on well into the night with pop­u­lar lo­cal mu­si­cians per­form­ing on the pagoda plat­form. He bright­ens, though, when we be­gin dis­cussing pol­i­tics, and ex­plains how the In­tha have been ig­nored by suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments and treated as in­fe­rior to larger groups, such as the Shan.

“I trav­eled to Naypyi­daw once to speak to the ho­tels and tourism min­is­ter about our pro­posal to al­low home­s­tays at Inle, as a way to help In­tha peo­ple gen­er­ate in­come,” Yae Aye says. “He didn’t have any idea what I was talk­ing about.”

His party has be­gun tak­ing mat­ters into its own hands. At the en­trance to Yae Aye’s of­fice are rows of long metal rods des­tined to be the cross­beams for util­ity poles; once in­stalled, they will help carry elec­tric­ity to some of the myr­iad vil­lages in the area, only a dozen of which were con­nected to the na­tional grid prior to2010. Be­yond im­prov­ing peo­ples’ stan­dard of liv­ing, bring­ing power to th­ese com­mu­ni­ties is also es­sen­tial for con­ser­va­tion ef­forts, as much of the log­ging in the lake’s water­shed is done to pro­vide fuel for wood fires.

Yae Aye’s ac­tiv­i­ties are in­fused with a sense of both ur­gency and op­ti­mism. He be­lieves work­able so­lu­tions can be found to the en­vi­ron­men­tal and so­cial chal­lenges the lake’s res­i­dents face to­day. “A lot of Myan­mar peo­ple think the In­tha don’t care about the lake. But we love it more than any­one else; we know how valu­able it is. What we need is knowl­edge. We need train­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence to cope with th­ese chal­lenges.”

His voice fal­ters as he con­tem­plates the con­se­quences of in­ac­tion. “If Inle Lake is gone … Well, for us, it’s over. So right now we have no choice but to act.”

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