Ethical Travel in Myanmar

We’ve visited countries such as South Africa with a sordid political and social history, a few such as India where class- and gender-based discrimination is rampant, and at least one–Uganda–where the current political reality is somewhere between worrisome and deplorable, but none can compare to Myanmar in terms of its government’s repression and persecution of dissidents. There’s an ongoing debate as to whether travel in this small country nestled between India, China, and Thailand is ethical. The military government has historically dealt ruthlessly with all opposition, imprisoning anyone who speaks out against the conditions in the country, or in favor of any facet of democratic representation, or anyone who even tries to pass information, photos, or videos regarding the political situation to the outside world. They hold hundreds of political prisoners. And it’s not just limited to residents: in 2007, as recounted in the Oscar-nominated film Burma VJ, a Japanese man was shot point-blank by military police for filming a peaceful protest.

Par Par Lay, Jailbird
Par Par Lay, Jailbird

Things have been starting to change, however. Protests occurred for a few days in 1988 and 2007, and a brutal crackdown followed in both cases. The most outspoken and charismatic figure in the opposition is Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. She has spent most of the last 20 years under house arrest for her political speech and organizing, even making the impossible choice of not attending her husband’s funeral in England, lest she not be allowed back into the country. In 1990, elections were held, and Aun Saung Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won an overwhelming victory, but the government refused to accept the results and did not cede any power to the opposition party.

National League for Democracy Sticker
National League for Democracy Sticker

Before 1992, all travel within the country was banned to foreigners. After that, travel was only allowed on tours organized by the military government, or tourism companies closely linked to it; there was even a requirement that tourists spend money only in so-called Foreign Exchange Certificates rather than the local currency, so that the government could track where tourists were going and what businesses they patronized, and so that they could take the lion’s share of any profits derived from tourists. Since the late 1990s, the government has been trying to open up to foreigners and increase tourism, even announcing “Myanmar Tourism Year 1996”, but Aun Saung Suu Kyi urged foreigners not to come while the military was in power and opposition groups were so uniformly punished. The appeal worked, with tourism numbers that year falling well below the government’s hopes, but since then things have been moving in a different direction.

Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya

In recent years, partly perhaps due to the events of the Arab Spring, the government has taken steps to open itself up to the rest of the world politically and economically, and in terms of their stance on tourism, but they have a ways to go. Seemingly democratic by-elections were held during our stay with Aung San Suu Kyi breaking her promise not to stand in any election as long as the military generals were still in power. This act speaks to her confidence in the changes that are happening, and she has also reversed her longstanding wish that foreigners not visit the country. However, the military still controls 60% of parliament and all the executive posts; and while we were able to travel independently instead of on a government-sponsored tour, there are large areas of the country that are off-limits to foreigners, and we were required to stay in hotels and guest houses officially sanctioned by the government.

Aung San Suu Kyi Gear
Aung San Suu Kyi Gear

All this forced us to question whether we wanted to travel in such a country, and to think deeply about where our tourism dollars are going. Some say that traveling to the country supports and validates the actions of the military government, but in the end, we decided to make the trip. We felt confident that given the way we travel, the vast majority of the money we spend in the country would end up in not in the pockets of the generals, but in the pockets of the kind and hardworking hotel- and restaurant owners, taxi drivers, handicraft vendors, and street peddlers that we would have most of our interactions with. We were sure that we would meet warm, outgoing, and happy people excited about the future of their country, and as you’ll see in the next few posts, we couldn’t have been more right. Finally, we felt that by visiting during such a period of immense change, we would be showing physical and financial support to the positive steps forward that the country and its government are making.

Confronting this difficult situation also had the effect of making us aware of how lucky we are to live in America with, despite its problems, a culture where we can say nearly anything we want with the protection of law on our side. It also made us consider the other things to which we give tacit approval by putting our money toward them. If we must consider the effect of spending our tourism dollars in Myanmar, then how should we feel about contributing our tourism dollars to a state like India with social conditions we can not support, or, for that matter, how should we feel about living in the United States, with its embarrassing history of selective foreign policy, and paying taxes to support wars and other causes we don’t believe in? I’m not sure what the answers are, except to say that you would have to live under a rock in order to keep any of your money from falling into the hands of a corporation or nation with values you don’t believe in. All we can do is think hard about the decisions we make and do our best to support positive change.


3 responses to “Ethical Travel in Myanmar”

  1. sarah b. Avatar

    john & i also had the experience of feeling lucky to live in america after just traveling to former yugoslavia and to budapest (though we loved both places)… in hungary, elections are such that the legislative and executive branches are on the same cycle. so in one election one party can sweep in. and then this can keep happening. our system is designed to be slow, and while frustrating, there are some serious benefits to that. then, in the former yugoslavia states (croatia, bosnia, montenegro) we found ourselves concerned about some overt racism… i mean, it wasn’t everywhere and all the time, but little things that were said and assumed and tacitly acknowledged made us realize that the US had come a far way — not far enough, of course, but farther than we could be.

    if that makes any sense.

    so i felt similarly: some level of pride in america and then definitely a large dollop of gosh, we still need to work on things at home too. always. for things that are obvious and those that we haven’t yet begun to question yet.

  2. Great to read your quote. We also had doubts about Burma a couple of years ago when we were in the area and ended up not visiting in the end. Interesting you mention the documentary Burma VI as we just watched that yesterday. Fascinating and frightening. We are praying, with the new cabinet and more travelers coming to the country that change is coming.
    Enjoy Cambodia! One of our favorite countries. Angkor is amazing and the people resilient. Wish we were there!

  3. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of your posts on your visit to Myanmar (Burma). The editorial team at Verge has been discussing the ethics of visiting the country a lot lately and it’s nice to see those values being reflected in the travel blogging community. (We’re due to do an update on our “No-Travel Guide to Burma”:

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