Should we travel to Myanmar?
I wrote this piece in 2016, shortly after my trip to Myanmar. At the time the events occurring in the region were described as civil unrest and ethnic cleansing.
Today, in 2018, its is widely reported that millions of Rohingya have been forced to flee their homeland to refugee camps in Bangladesh. Various humanitarian organizations (including the United Nations) have released reports which confirm the degree of human rights violations which have and continue to take place, committed by the Myanmar Army against the Rohingya. In my home country, the Canadian government has declared these events genocidal.
I believe that today, one could still enjoy a trip to Myanmar. But, I am not sure if in this moment I would feel comfortable contributing my tourism dollars towards an economy which is supporting the perpetration of human rights violations against a minority group.
This piece is not meant to tell you whether it is “right” or “wrong” to travel to Myanmar (or any country, for that matter.” With this piece, I hope to inspire readers to think about the ethics of travel, the impact of our choices as travelers, and the importance of educating ourselves on the destinations we choose to travel to.
“You have to go to Myanmar, it’s magical. Go soon. It’s going to change.””
My partner and I heard this often as we traveled South-East Asia. Other travelers spoke about Myanmar with a raw enthusiasm. Two years ago a fellow backpacker said the same thing to me about Cuba. A couple months later I went, and it was one of the most amazing backpacking experiences of my life. My partner and I found some cheap flights to Myanmar and our E-Visa was granted within a day. Concerned about my severe nut allergy, we figured we would go for nine days, equipped with lots of canned food and cereal. There were no apprehensions …until we told my parents.
For the first time in my life, my parents aggressively opposed a travel destination. They sent screenshots of travel advisories and news headlines. Seeing the words “genocide” and “rape” in the headlines stirred a sick feeling deep within me. I had always been aware of Myanmar’s tumultuous history, but I lacked concrete details. So like any good millennial, I took to Google.
Until World War II Myanmar (then Burma) was a British colony. The Japanese helped drive the British out to gain Myanmar’s independence. In 1962 a military coup led to a Junta (a military government). After an endless stream of reports of human rights violations, Myanmar sunk into a deep and intractable civil war. Finally, due to decades of international pressure, the Junta relented and granted elections.
In 1990 Aung San Suu Kyi and her democratic party won the election but never took power. The Junta did not allow her to take office and placed her under house arrest. While under house arrest she called a boycott on all tourism, stating that tourism would simply subsidize the Junta. In 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi was released. She withdrew her boycott, arguing that responsible travel can encourage a positive force for change. Since her proclamation, the numbers of tourists visiting Myanmar has increased dramatically every year.
So why were my parents so worried? Today, Myanmar is in the midst of another civil war and the political situation is volatile. A week before our flight to Yangon, I read about genocide and rape occurring in the Rakhine State. The UN is actively investigating the potential ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people, who are a muslim minority. Only days before our flight, a prominent political lawyer was assassinated at Yangon International Airport. His Muslim identity, a minority in Myanmar, clearly reflected the religious and ethnic tensions that grip the country.
I began to question my motivations for going to Myanmar, realizing that I was not only compromising my safety, but potentially contributing to the economy of a corrupt government. I asked myself, was this ethical? Would I be indirectly supporting a military government engaging in genocide?
Despite all my reservations, my partner and I boarded our flight. The nine days that followed were flawless. We fell in love with the people, the culture, the food and the beauty. We barely slept because we could not resist waking to watch the sunrise over Shedagwan Pagoda, Inle Lake, the temples of Bagan and U Bein Bridge. And we could see monks collecting their food during the early morning alms ceremonies. We wandered markets where locals stared because foreigners are so rare. We visited floating villages still unspoiled by tourism and we explored ex-colonial buildings in Yangon.
We threw sticks at trees with our local guide, to knock out the tamarind fruit so we could eat it. We drank teas in Burmese tea houses packed with men, their eyes glued to the American films projected on small screens. And then we giggled as local women showed my partner how to properly wrap his longyi around his waist. We sat in an ancient temple as a Burmese woman sang nearby, her beautiful haunting voice echoing throughout. And we watched an elderly woman extract thread from the lotus plants of Inle Lake.
We laughed with a Burmese man as he stared in wonder at photos of my snow covered home in Ottawa. He wanted to know what snow felt like. We drove a motorbike through the countryside of Mandalay, women waving to us from trucks. We felt warmly welcomed in Myanmar. We found free water dispensers on dirt roads, in temples, in restaurants, shops and hotels. I only once had to buy water, because the Burmese believe that water should be available to everyone at all times.
In our nine beautiful days in Myanmar, I often thought of what we didn’t see. Of what the government ensures tourists don’t see. Tourists are designated to tourist buses. Every bus, hotel and tour carefully logs your passport and visa information. Locals do not talk to tourists about politics. We never saw any of the severe starvation we read about and we never saw the soldiers, the checkpoints, the guns. We heard about bombs going off in police stations, but we never saw or heard them ourselves. Once, out on a small wooden boat, a Burmese guide told us with humble envy that “we were so young.” I’d never felt so guilty about my Western, middle class white privilege. The question of ethics persisted in my mind. How could we be ethically responsible travelers?
We focused on giving to small communities and attempted to travel independently rather than on tours. We tried to take local transport whenever possible and avoided government owned hotels and restaurants. Instead, we looked for small family owned establishments. We hired local guides through small agencies and we tried to spread our money around. We only indulged in political talk when a local brought up the subject. We tried as best we could to be responsible, as Aung San Suu Kyi requested of the traveling community.
Myanmar gave us a unique experience, which was incomparable to the rest of our trip in South East Asia. We reflected on how the authenticity of the Burmese travel experience will fade away as time goes on and more tourists catch wind of Myanmar’s charms. Myanmar was unforgettably magical and will always hold a special place in my heart.
I still do not know if we did enough to responsibly travel in Myanmar, or if it was ethical to visit at all. But I learned valuable lessons as a traveler. In Myanmar I learned humility. I was reminded of my privilege. I realized that my motivations to travel there in the first place were both ignorant and naïve. And perhaps that is the greatest lesson I learned – from my parents, and from Myanmar. Those of us privileged to travel this world, carry the responsibility and obligation to self-inform.