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Andy’s Travel Diary

Tuesday, 10 Oct 2006

Location: Thailand


For those of you not in the know about Myanmar (Burma) and why there is a large question mark over that country’s place in my itinerary here is the lowdown.

Myanmar is currently governed by an abhorrently oppressive and regressive military junta which has been in power for over four decades. Without debating the intricacies of freedom and democracy as concepts and the eurocentric, white, male, middle-class biases in most discourses of the two terms, permit me to simplify; the government has stifled democracy and movements toward mass participation in the political process; it is Stalinesque in its liberal use of spies, informers, imprisonment (harsh sentences are imposed for even minor offences) and extra-judicial killings, all to keep the population atomised and acquiescent. Its flagrant abuse of human rights is well documented; torture, forced labour, the conscription of children into the armed forces and the brutal persecution bordering on ethnic-cleansing of the Karen tribes in the west and north of the country are a small sample of a long list of crimes against humanity. Media milking of the ‘Orwellian’ cow (don’t ask me where that peverted image came from) has drained all meaning from that term and yet ‘Orwellian’ still remains a legitimate description when applied to Myanmar.

The country’s rightful leader is Aung San Suu Kyi. Her party, the NLD, won national elections in 1990. The junta, refusing to relinquish political control of the country subsequently placed Suu Kyi under detention for 10 of the last 17 years. In May her confinement was again extended and there seems increasingly little chance the junta will make good on its 2003 promises of a road map to democracy.

That’s the basics, now the ethics - should i travel there?
No! That is the clear answer from Burma Campaign UK, an organisation working for the transformation of Myanmar into a democracy respectful of international human rights. They argue it is impossible to travel through the country without lining the pockets of the military regime thereby strengthening its rule and capabilities.

Moreover Myanmar is often considered unique. Tourism apparently underlies many of the human rights abuses suffered by the local population. Mark Farmaner, spokesmen for the group told Kate McGeown (a reporter for the BBC who travelled to Myanmar recently): “Much of the country’s tourist infrastructure is developed by the use of forced labour…People have been made to construct roads, airports and hotels, and thousands more have been forcibly relocated to make way for tourist areas.”

The intimate links between the tourist industry, the government and its oppressive policies have purportedly spurred Aung San Suu Kyi, to repeatedly ask tourists to stay away from Myanmar. “Tourism to Burma is helping to prolong the life of one of the most brutal and destructive regimes in the world…Visiting now is tantamount to condoning the regime.”
The debate therefore seems quite obvious, indeed for many there is no debate; don’t travel to Myanmar!

The equation becomes problematic when factoring in the wishes of the population. Indeed this is the main issue, listening to the wishes of the population, exactly what the military junta is (rightly) criticised for not doing. In her article McGeown writes that - “The people genuinely want you to come. As I stepped down from the plane onto Burmese soil, my head full of warnings about spies watching my every move, I was pleasantly surprised to find friendly faces rushing to greet me. ‘Thank you so much for coming,’ said an elderly man, smiling through betel-stained teeth.” She also quotes one tour guide who said “It’s very difficult…I really respect Aung San Suu Kyi, and I understand why she wants a boycott, but then we desperately need tourists’ money here - not just for me but for other people too.” Steve Hendrix in an article for the Washington Post asked a local if tourists should travel to Myanmar “he seemed surprised by the question. ‘They should come,’ he says.” These are evidently not isolated cases.

Furthermore, in contradistinction to Rough Guide which refuses to provide a book on the country, Lonely Planet has released a guide for Myanmar with useful advise for backpackers on ways to minimise the amount of money ending up in the juntas vaults and thereby maximising the amount received by the local population. It should be noted that recently, through her spokesmen, Aung San Suu Kyi (’the Lady’ as she is referred to by locals) has softened her previous stance against visitors and suggested that targeted tourism is perhaps acceptable.
In addition to listening to the wishes of the local population, can i actually speak with any authority, moral or otherwise of the Burmese people’s situtation without actually visiting the country? Kate McGeown again - “One day a tour guide showing me round one of the Burma’s many pagodas turned to me and whispered: ‘Please let other people know what it’s like for us here. We need the outside world to understand.’” Can i understand without travelling to the place, by merely being an armchair activist, learning indirectly from the comfort of an internet cafe? Savvytraveller notes that, after experiencing the country for himself, the fear upon suspecting of being watched by the secret police, the self censorship he imposed to protect those he met, he noted how “Burma had become more than someone else’s problem. In a small way, it became my own. Which is maybe the best reason to come here. To add a voice in support of people who are afraid to speak.”

Agreed. But even having the opportunity to talk to the population and learn from them about their situation and subsequently inform people back home, the media or the international community (grand ambitions indeed) is fraught with problems. Using that information could have serious repurcussions for those people. That is a heavy moral responsibilty to be burdened with. Yet surely doing nothing would weigh more.

The Burmese people are starved of information about the outside world. Visitors consistently report the intense interest the population demonstrate regarding life outside of the issues and information the government allows access to. A frame of reference for oppressed peoples, a lodestar around which people can begin to question what they are told and thus compare their lives with others was a large factor in the collapse of the People’s Democracies of Eastern Europe. It was for this very reason that those regimes attemped to block radio and television transmissions from Western Europe. Am i suggesting such a grandiose role for backpackers? Of course not. Backpackers of the world unite?! No. (Although i do share some striking similarities with Che Guevara). But according to savvytraveller perhaps we do have a part to play. A fellow Myanmar visitor told him that it’s alot better now. “On her first trip, back in 1994, locals feared any dialogue with foreigners. ‘It’s changed a great deal in that, now, you’ll get everybody speaking to you. Whether it’s just to say hello, whether it’s to practice their English, or whether it’s to put their side about what’s happening politically in the country.’”
David Steinberg, director of Asian studies at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service agrees. In the aforementioned Washington Post article he states, “My opinion is that tourists should go…I’m a great admirer of Aung San Suu Kyi, and I’d very much like to see her come to power. But I disagree with her on this point. Tourism provides a rare channel of communication for the Burmese.” Then the main issue becomes whether one could face the moral responsibility of speaking to a local about issues such as politics when this could result in serious consequences for them and their families.

All these arguments have to be weighed up extremely carefully. However there is one argument commonly heard from those travelling to the country which i will not be swayed; adventure and excitement. Savvytraveller reports of a swedish traveller called Maria who travelled to Myanmar simply because it held fascination as a closed country. I find that sort of attitude fairly immature. Not only is it disrespectful and ignorant of the suffering of the Burmese people but it is also utterly selfish - a short adrenaline fix with scant regard for the consequences of those they meet, speak to or eat with. All for the right to brag to people at home about how daring they are.

Some of the backpacking travellers i have met are backpacker snobs. Most people have met them, “Oh i would never go to Thailand, NZ, Oz (insert other countries here)…so many backpackers”…or…”Oh so you went on the backpacker trail“. Thailand received roughly ten million visitors last year, Myanmar a tiny fraction of that. It can be disheartening to see the Brits abroad type which i’ve mentioned before, (though in general most of the travellers i’ve met have been very respectful of the cultures they visit and, shock horror, interesting and intelligent people in themselves) but I’m not going off searching for an ‘original’ place to travel just so i can sneer down my nose at people who backpack places where other feet have dared to tread. I’m not going to miss places that are beautiful, thrilling and enlightening simply because they may be well travelled. These arguments have not entered into the question mark hanging over Myanmars place on my itinerary. Backpacker bragging bores me and to be honest, finding somewhere unique to go or something unique to do is practically impossible nowadays, someone else will always have done it. I thought the trip i was doing, especially when i reached tibet and nepal would be quite devoid of backpackers (something i was not too comfortable with, after all i am travelling by myself). It seems i had little to worry about, i have met tens of people doing exactly the trip i have planned and many others doing substantial segments of it. When one finally realises uniqueness is a pipe dream, adventurism and backpacking bragging rights become a matter of arithmetic: if x number have travelled to a country one can brag… brave, adventurous, exciting. If x+1 travel there…forget it, boring, stale, unexciting.
Wow what a rant!

I desperately want to go to Myanmar, it is supposedly a beautiful country, rich in culture, history and spirit. Since reading of the ancient city of Bagan some years ago i have wanted to travel there, but the country will still be there when the military junta collapses.

I’m still debating but i feel my mind is 90% decided. I’ll give it a miss. This time. The other six countries (perhaps seven…i’m thinking of Bhutan now) hold enough surprises and delights for one year i am quite sure.

Just with essays, so the same with blog posts; they help clarify your positions. That post was as much for me as it was for others.

If you would like to find out more about Myanmar i can suggest a number of articles on BBC news to give a basic grounding. But for more detailed info and ways to help Myanmar i suggest visiting the website of The Burma Campaign UK where you can send an email to Myanmar’s government thereby joining in a campaign led by Mtv and BCuk, or buy Damien Rice’s single whose proceeds go to BCuk. Both would take only a few minutes of your time.

p.s. This has nothing to do with Burma but Simon Kingsley Winter almost made me get a B in A’level history.