Mention the word Myanmar and no doubt images are instantly conjured of golden stupas rising out of the mist, a myriad of hot air balloons drifting in pale pink dawns over Bagan, and peaceful monks praying beside the shimmer of ancient lakes.
Myanmar is a land of fables. But beneath the tapestry of poetic landscapes – bloody and brutal things are also happening.
A Startling Situation
The Rohingya refugee crisis has forced almost 600,000 people to leave their homeland since August 2017 in what the UN candidly called ‘a textbook case of ethnic cleansing’. The situation has come to an even uglier head with some Burmese people believing that the Muslim Rohingya are a potential threat to their economic well-being.
This has led to many of the local population watching with indifference as the military regime deal violently with the Rohingya community. Like any social and political problem, it is deep and complex and by sketching out the bare bones, we can barely scratch the surface.
Before skimming the surface on ethics – any good tour company will take safety measures into account first. While some areas of Myanmar may be experiencing civil unrest – especially in the Rakhine state, most of Myanmar remains untouched and untampered by these dark and stormy political and social problems.
Tour companies haven’t pulled out of the country and many government websites haven’t advised against travel to Myanmar, other than putting out warnings against unnecessary travel in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin, which all sit up in the North West of the country.
An Ethical Dilemma
For those who have their tickets booked and bags packed in the hopes of seeing the glistening Shwedagon Pagoda, it can throw up a moral panic and begs the question; is it ethical to visit Myanmar or places where human rights violations are taking place? After all, how could sublime sunsets and trishaw rides possibly be enjoyed in a place where thousands of people have had their rights and dignity stripped?
Thinking Beyond the Good Time
The first question that needs to be considered at this point, is to ask yourself why you travel. While having a good time is certainly high on the list of reasons as to why people fly halfway across the far-flung globe, usually there is a thread that runs deeper. Most people travel to be culturally educated – to see how people live, taste homecooked food, converse with those from a different path, and to fill in their gaps of knowledge from a far-flung place.
Travel to Myanmar or any country in a time of social strife, won’t take away from this experience and may even provide deeper insight and understanding of the culture, community, and tangled complex histories of these places.
Tourism Keeps Communities Afloat
The main question on many travellers’ lips, is whether it is ethical to contribute to the economy of Myanmar when the government are committing such atrocities? The reality is, that while the government may feel the burn of travellers and tour companies boycotting the country, it is often the local people who suffer the consequences.
While many may argue that tourism is a double-edged sword, many countries do rely on an influx of visitors to improve their economy and their way of life. When tragedy falls onto a country; whether via natural disaster or human horror, tourism numbers fall and those who make a living from that industry have little to lean back on, especially in countries that don’t provide a safety net of social security or a stable economy.
Go Local on the Ground
There is a way of traveling ethically in those countries under the strain of human rights violations, it takes a little care and consideration – both in the planning stage and on the ground. The most important change you can make is to think local.
Those traveling with outside tour providers shouldn’t be shy about asking questions; ask your tour provider how many local Burmese people are included in the business, whether hotels are big brand names or independently ran, whether the activities and adventures included in the program have a direct financial impact on communities.
Going overland from Bangkok to Yangon will put your path right in the way of local businesses; letting you sip tea in lakeside cafes, connect with colourful market owners, ride with ferry owners, and climb mountains with small children nipping at your feet. Of course, the government will still benefit even from local tourism in terms of taxes, but by going as local as possible, travellers can be sure that the benefits outweigh the negatives.
Keeping Myanmar in Mind
Another essential way tourism can continue to benefit Myanmar and the Burmese people at this terrible time is the fact that by keeping travellers flowing into the landscape, Myanmar stays on the mind. Tourism helps to keep a country and its people visible. When people boycott the country, what happens in that place can slip quietly behind the scenes and thus there is less global pressure to solve a crisis.
One of the worst things that can happen right now for Myanmar and its people, is for it to slip once more behind closed doors. Burma was once a completely isolated state and the risk of that curtain coming down again could be disastrous. One way to keep the veil from falling on Myanmar is to keep the value of tourism high, as this will make it more difficult for the government to simply close those doors without notice.
For travellers who choose to go to Myanmar, they are also opening themselves up to witness this world for themselves, something which can be hugely valuable in piecing together the story of a place.
By drifting through the country on a Strand Cruise from Bagan to Mandalay or connecting with ethnic communities on the shores of Inle Lake, a story in the newspaper or headline on social media suddenly has a name and a face, and by conversing with people you can start to understand the situation at hand, from an inside point of view. Also, while travellers should be open minded to how other people live, it may also be beneficial for Burmese people to be exposed to different ideals of democracy, so that they too, can build a bigger picture of the world beyond their doorstep.
Our world right now is marred by scars of political unrest, human rights violations, and the threat of terror. From China to the Middle East, America, and Africa – there is barely a corner of our far-flung globe that is left to ethically explore. Travellers must draw their own lines in the sand, but the reality is – that a country is not just its politics.
Beneath the weight of even the worst government systems, there are the warm café owners, charming little guest house families, talkative and passionate tour guides, and all the local faces who truly make the country.