Burma: To Go or Not to Go?

Burma, a country ruled by the world’s last military junta, is a land surrounded in mystery, civil war, unrest, corruption and displacement. The second largest producer of opium world-wide, Burma is one of the top ten least developed countries in the world.  It is also one of the most impoverished.  Since 1948, Burma has been ruled by a corrupt military regime that has displaced or destroyed thousands of ethnic minority Karen people.  The regime also blatantly ignored the 1990 election of pro-democratic leader of the National League of Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was voted in by the majority of Burma’s citizens at an overwhelming 80%. Instead of celebrating her victory, she was imprisoned by the junta in her own home and the results of the election have never been recognized.

It is believed that Burma has 2,100 political prisoners, including many of the monks who led peaceful protests back in 2007.  Many of those monks were shot and killed; others were captured and imprisoned and remain so today.  The Burmese government has failed to provide for its citizens by rejecting and/or intercepting foreign aid  after Cyclone Nargas in 2008 and again after the 6.8 earthquake that hit in March of this year.

So the question begs to be asked?  Given the opportunity, should you go to Burma or not?  There are strong opinions on both sides.  Those who vehemently oppose tourism do so because they believe it puts money in the hands of the junta and is thereby complicit in the suffering of Burma’s people.  The pro-tourist side believes tourism should not be boycotted because it has the potential for engagement, humanitarian assistance, understanding, and economically supporting the people of Burma.

One must ask themselves:  Does your money, no matter how wisely spent in Burma, help sustain a military regime that has imprisoned political dissidents, used forced labor and human trafficking, seized foreign aid, displaced thousands, and failed to recognize a public election?  Does setting foot on Burmese soil mean you are “condoning the regime?”

Here’s what the guidebooks have to say.

Reasons Not to Go:

  • Aung San Suu Kyi herself has asked tourists not to come (this was back in 1995 when the tourist boycott began).
  • The government used forced labor to help build the tourist sites.
  • International tourists can be seen as a symbolic stamp of approval for the Burmese government.
  • It is impossible to visit without some money going into the hands of the military junta either directly or indirectly.
  • The government forbids tourism to many areas, particularly those inhabited by minority groups, due to unrest and conflict.
Reasons to Go:
  • The vast majority of locals – including veterans of the pro-democracy uprising – want you to come.
  • The majority of a careful independent traveller’s expenditures goes to the private sector.
  • Many observers point out that a four decade long trade boycott on Cuba never changed its leadership.
  • As outside communication is regulated, tourism provides a two-way exchange between the locals and the outside world.  Locals see that they are not forgotten and visitors take away images and stories to share outside of Burma.
  • Human rights violations are less likely to occur in areas where international visitors are present.
Even the Free Burma Coalition has reversed its pro-boycott stance. So, to go or not to go?  I think everyone has to answer that question for themselves being as informed about the issues as they can be.  I think all travellers must do so aware of the social and political issues at hand and conscious of how and where they spend their money.
Having thought long and hard about what is the right thing to do when faced with such complex issues, I’ve decided to go.  I have visited Burma numerous times to renew my visa but visiting immigration, the markets, and the Burmese street kids in Tachiliek isn’t really the full Burmese experience.  This weekend, six international volunteers from DEPDC/GMS will venture into Burma.  I will be one of them.  We’ve done our research, consulted the Burmese people we know and serve in Mae Sai, and have decided it’s in our best interest to explore the country our city borders.  We can literally walk to Burma.  We will be gone for four days.  There are no ATMs or hospitals to speak of.  The roads are in poor condition and we risk being ripped off by corrupt officials.  But we have to see for ourselves.  We see it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And we feel we are better off in numbers.  Most importantly, we want to understand the plight of the people we serve at DEPDC/GMS.  Most the issues we work in – education, human trafficking prevention, human rights protection, informed migration – are in place because of Thailand’s close proximity to and complex relationship with Burma.  We hope to return next Tuesday with a newfound awareness, a handful of adventures, and messages from the people of Burma themselves.  Cross your fingers for us and stay tuned…
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