Myanmar (Burma) – Tourism Tightrope (30.12.17)

‘To travel or not to travel?’  is an increasingly important question when evaluating the merits of a visit to Myanmar.

This is not new. Visiting Myanmar (formally known as Burma) has, for many decades, been a controversial subject, dominated by allegations of extensive human rights abuses by military dictatorships against their own people.

Indeed, Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League of Democracy, requested an outright boycott of tourism into the country because most of the income from tourism directly supported a regime using a vast array of weaponry against its own people. As a result, we at Nomadic Thoughts stopped sending clients to Burma from 2001 – 2011.

This episode, along with the ANC’s supporting of a boycott on international travel and cultural exchange to apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, have been the only times we have refused to arrange client travel to a destination. In both cases it was due to specific ‘non-travel requests’ coming from respected leadership organisations universally understood to represent their oppressed people.

The ethical question of whether one should travel to Myanmar today is once again open to debate. The Myanmar military offensive against the Rohingya people in the northern Rakhine province is reportedly so brutal that the United Nations has described their actions as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. To date, over half a million Rohingya people have fled across the border to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Although today’s situation is different in that there is no organisation requesting that people do not visit Myanmar, we at Nomadic Thoughts are fully aware of present day sensitivities around planning and arranging travel to such a troubled land.

So much so that, while we are continuing to organise client trips to Myanmar, we feel it is our responsibility, as much as our clients’, to fully engage with the debate on whether a visit to Myanmar will ultimately benefit not only its Buddhist people, but also the displaced Islamic Rohingya minority.

At present we believe it will. Mainly on the basis that with continued tourist visits, it is hoped that communication from the outside world will help the innocent people of Myanmar to learn and understand how best to frame the debate. It is also the case that many people now rely directly on income from tourism, and the effect of reducing that economic lifeline can only cause the plight of many others to worsen still.

Certainly, Nomadic Thoughts remain passionate about travel to Myanmar. Having first fallen in love with the country in the early 1980s, my over-riding memory of every trip to this part of the world is always the warmth and generosity of the people. So overwhelming, in fact, is their kindness, that it is incomprehensible to me that such appalling human rights abuses are being carried out in the fringe Rakhine regions of their country.

Caroline Findlay de Concha, my long standing Nomadic Thoughts colleague, visited Burma this year and took all these photos in central Myanmar, as the Rohingya crisis was unfolding. She discovered most Buddhist Burmese, who are unable to access the global images of defenceless Rohingya refugees, believe that their military government have been merely responding to ‘Rohingya terrorist insurgency’.

Indeed, even Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate, has also shown difficulty in grasping the facts behind what has been happening in Rakhine province.

So, when weighing up the ethics of travelling to Myanmar, it is worth heeding the traditional Burmese proverb ကံယုံ၍ ဆူးပုံမနင်းရာ – ‘Don’t jump into a pit of thorns out of blind faith’.

‘Look before you leap’, as, at the very least, tourism must continue to support the Rohingya people’s cause, with a continued aim of being an effective key driver for socio-‎economic progress across the whole of Myanmar.