The Ethics of Visiting Myanmar
There are some serious ethical questions that travelers to Myanmar must ask themselves before planning a visit to the country. Am I legitimizing a terrible government? Am I helping or hurting the Burmese cause by traveling to Myanmar? Will my money flow directly into government coffers thereby funding oppression?
These are questions we considered carefully before making our decision.
Reports indicate that Aung San Suu Kyi, the world-famous Burmese opposition leader who has been under house arrest for years, has advised travelers not to visit Myanmar arguing that such a visit serves to support an unjust regime. She and similarly-minded Burmese activists argue that tourism does little to support the average Burmese person and that tourist dollars will ultimately end up with the government.
Others argue that visitors to Myanmar serve to witness human rights abuses and oppression as well as bring an outsider’s perspective to the Burmese people who often have little access to international news or opinions. Burmese anti-tourism activists counter that visitors to the country see little of the “real” Myanmar and Burmese can find better news sources than the occasional tourist.
I have long followed Aung San Suu Kyi’s struggle and was uncomfortable going against her and her supporters’ reported wishes. But our short visit here has made it clear that coming to Myanmar is important. True, we may not be exposed to every aspect of Burmese oppression, but talking to locals has taught me that their ultimate fear is simply being forgotten by the larger international community. When I mentioned President Obama’s referencing Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi in a recent speech, locals’ eyes lit up with excitement at the thought that such an important world leader had remembered them. (I decided not to mention the fact that Obama had severely mispronounced Aung San Suu Kyi’s name during the speech. Oops!)
Having said that, it is clear that tourist dollars are collectively funneled into government coffers. Visa fees, entry fees and hotel taxes are unavoidable contributions. To minimize your impact, you can choose to stay in inexpensive private guesthouses rather than government-run hotels. It is also better to travel by bus or privately owned car rather than airplanes, which are run by the government or those connected to the government.
This is where it gets more complicated. How do you determine whether a privately owned company is connected to the government or not? Some, such as the notorious businessman Tay Za, are referenced in guidebooks. Others may not be so obvious. The solution to this riddle is actually much easier than you might think – ask locals. You may not always get the correct answer. But then again, you often do.
The best thing you can do when visiting Myanmar is to travel independently. This is quite easy to do here as the infrastructure is actually much better than you might expect. If you require more luxury, then stay at home. This is clearly not the moment for high-end tourists to visit the country. We experienced one heartbreaking moment as bus loads of tourists drove out of a resort owned by Tay Za on their way to the airport. I understand that not everyone is a backpacker, but there is no reason to dump thousands of dollars into government hands.
Well, wouldn’t it be better to stay out of Myanmar altogether?
I would answer no. One of the most disturbing people we’ve met here was a well-educated Chinese businesswoman who was fluent in English and had lived in the West for years. While discussing human rights abuses in Myanmar, I asked about the democracy movement in China. Proudly, she announced that Chinese were growing richer and richer and no longer needed democracy, as if wealth were the only benefit of the institution. I quickly realized her definition of human rights abuse was not having a cell phone. In her world, unlawful imprisonment, oppression, freedom of speech, forced relocation were all non-issues.
It’s clear that Myanmar’s overwhelming influence is China. Locals have repeatedly acknowledged that the Western embargo on Myanmar products has been relatively pointless because China willingly rushes in to fill the void. Chinese goods fill Myanmar’s markets and the Chinese are racing to buy up all the resources they can get their hands on. (Picture an endless stream of trucks carrying out what is left of Myanmar’s tropical forests.) The West’s attempts to isolate Myanmar are providing China with the perfect opportunity to shape the country in its own image. International visitors to Myanmar provide a valuable wealth of perspectives whether French, Swedish, Canadian or Japanese to challenge Chinese definitions of development. Burmese are hungry for ideas and interaction. This interaction will prove vital as they define themselves and their future.
Beyond the rather abstract reason of countering Chinese influence, most Burmese we have encountered seem to feel tourism represents an economic opportunity for the average person. In places like Bagan, Inle Lake and Yangon, it is clear that many people are surviving off of tourist dollars. Every day, we are warmly welcomed and engaged by curious Burmese. Not once has anyone suggested that our presence is somehow conflicting with a larger movement towards freedom. (And I’ll mention here that we’ve had some pretty candid conversations, so I feel confident they would tell us to stay away if they felt it would benefit Burma.)
All in all, a cautious, well-planned budget to mid-range trip to Myanmar will probably do more good than harm. However, I will emphasize once again that high-end travel is currently not an option for those who want to visit the country without handing over large sums of money to a very questionable regime. If luxury is that important to you, you might want to wait until the political situation changes before you come.