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.