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.”