The Ethics of Traveling to Burma

A couple of weeks ago I found myself sitting on a beach in Vietnam, miffed that my year abroad was about to come to a crashing halt, and desperately trying to find one more place to visit in Asia before I would have to go back to work. I wanted somewhere a little off the touristy trail (so not Bali then) somewhere I hadn’t been before (there goes Laos), somewhere survivable on my pitiful backpackers budget (adios, Philippines) and of course somewhere I would find remotely interesting (sorry, Singapore).  So that left Myanmar (Or Burma, if you are imperially inclined).

Burma is somewhere that I have wanted to travel through for a long time. Just thinking about it conjures up images of pagoda’s, smiling Burmese and some really interesting colonial architecture. It also brings to mind images of a pretty nasty junta, a coup or two, persecution of the Burmese and of course Aung San Suu Kyi. Let’s see if I can sum up the current situation in one paragraph without leaving anything big out or causing offense:

Things haven’t been rosy in Burma for a while now. During WW2 the Burmese sided with Japan for a while and drove the British out – finally declaring themselves an Independent country, though that relationship was short lived and the Burmese switched sides again and fought with the Allies. After the war Bagyoke Aung San (Suu Kyi’s father) -overwhelmingly won the elections but he (and most of his parliament) were assassinated before they could even take office. A coup in 1962 forced out the left wing army who’s take over and nationalization of all services (even retail) had crippled the country’s economy. During the coup 3000 Burmese lost their lives. In 6 weeks. The government formed the SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council….. 1984 anyone??), promised state elections – of which Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party NLD (National League for Democracy) were of course set to win. This made the government nervous so they put Suu Kyi under house arrest and postponed the elections. When the elections were finally held the NLD won by more than 85%, but the SLORC decided they would refuse the NLD to assume power, and they arrested most the party. Not very gracious losers.

So, there’s a pretty oppressive military regime running things in Burma at the moment. Some human rights groups have even urged people not to visit (a statement Aung San Suu Kyi has endorsed). But then there’s the other side of the argument.

If we don’t travel to Burma, the Burmese will never get the chance to tell their story nor will they hear what the conditions of your life are like. Lonely Planet says:

“Tourism remains one of the few industries to which ordinary locals have access in terms of income and communication; the vast majority of locals seem to want you here. And there are plenty of other reasons to consider visiting. Human-rights abuses are less likely to occur in areas where the international community is present; keeping the people isolated from international witnesses to internal oppression may only cement the government’s ability to rule.”

If you do decide to travel to Burma, there are precautions you can take that will go a long way in making sure your tourist dollars help those who deserve it.

  • Keep it in the family – stay at guesthouses and family run hostels. Avoid the bigger (and more expensive) government run hotels – you’re money isn’t going anywhere except into the Junta’s pockets.
  • Shop around – don’t buy everything at one shop or guesthouse. Buy purchasing the things you need at different shops you are supporting a wider portion of the community and there’s less chance that a significant amount of your money is going to an unknown government run establishment. Want some artwork? Try to buy from the artists themselves. This goes for crafts too.
  • Take the bus – a lot of the ferries, airlines trains and travel agencies are government run, however most buses are privately owned and operated. Sure, it’s not the comfiest way to travel, but it’s cheap, you’ll meet some locals and get to see the scenery up close, while supporting genuine local business.

Lonely Planet’s Burma guidebook “does not review any restaurants, hotels or shops known to be government run.” They also “flay any government run services (such as trains).”

I decided not to go in the end. Just as I was debating whether to go or not, Aung San Suu Kyi’s incarceration had recently been extended because the Junta felt that she broke the conditions of her house arrest. A mentally ill westerner broke into her compound, swimming across a river to reach her house (obviously completely out of her control, which just serves as another example of the Junta exercising their stranglehold over the country). I felt that if Suu Kyi doesn’t want us there for now, then perhaps I had better listen. Having said that I’m still not sure if I made the right decision.

Have you been to Burma, or are you planning on going? What are your concerns regarding the Junta – do you feel that by spending money it’s only the supporting the government, or should we be going anyway to try and support the people that need it most?

Your valued opinions are hereby sought.

11 Replies to “The Ethics of Traveling to Burma”

  1. I lived in Burma just after I was born, but did visit it once within my memory, as a teenager in the late 90s. I really enjoyed my time there, but our entire trip was planned by Burmese family friends, and we were able to avoid pretty much everything government-operated, except perhaps for the national history museum.

    I’ve spent my entire life living, or in constant contact, with self-exiled Burmese who loath what SLORC (now called SPDC, but I prefer using the former name because it sounds nefarious) has done to their beautiful country, so I don’t like to disagree with Daw Aung Saan Suu Kyi’s advice. But I’ve never been a fan of travel bans as a means of “liberating” a people, since it is so easy to visit a place and inject money directly into the local economy. As long as you aren’t using government services, you are really helping people who are involuntarily oppressed and made destitute by their “government”.

    The Burmese people are so wonderful, and the country so beautiful, that I endorse the plan you laid out, which is to visit and try to use services directly from the Burmese people.

  2. Thanks Ian.
    I’m still struggling with my decision to not visit when I had the chance. You are absolutely right -if you do decide to visit, avoiding those known government services really will help support the general Burmese population. From what I hear though, avoiding the not-so-outwardly-known government owned services might be the problem.

  3. I always felt I couldn’t travel to Burma, given the SPDC, but a friend has been a few times and described the place and particularly the people as being amazing, and unmissable, still I couldn’t justify it. Of course it didn’t occur to me to tailor a trip in such a way as to make it have the least impact on lining the junta’s coffers and the most impact on local people. It seems obvious now that you have mentioned it, and I think I will more than likely include it on my itinerary for Southeast Asia in the next few years. It seems that it will just involve a bit more research than normal, making sure we stay and spend at the right places. Hopefully then the cash we spend there will have a positive, rather than negative effect…

  4. Good research Shane and good advice from you and also your readers. Supporting local people and their businesses in their communities applies everywhere….abroad AND at home!

  5. I planned a month-long trip to Burma and loved it so much that I ended up staying close to six weeks. I agree with your listed ‘do’s’ for travel but would also stress that it is important not to broach sensitive topics – politics, religion or the challenges of living under the Junta – unless locals do so first. You only endanger them by doing so. That said, the Burmese people are so thirsty to learn and to share that I would encourage people to visit the country, so long as it is done in a responsible manner. If you are interested, my initial thoughts on Burma are here: I am in the process of writing several more posts; I’m currently in Thailand and covering the red shirt protests has waylaid my plans of covering Burma thoroughly before summertime!


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