“Nowhere else in the world have human rights abuses and tourism been so closely linked.”
- Population: 47.7 million
- GDP: $13.7 million
- Cost of a mobile phone SIM card: $1,000
- Number of refugees or displaced persons: at least 500,000
- Number of political prisoners: approximately 2,000
- Internet users: 0.1% of the population
- Government’s slogan: “Everybody’s friend but nobody’s ally.”
- Burma: the world’s longest running military dictatorship (1962 – ?)
Back in May, I had the opportunity to go to Burma with several of my colleagues. It was a struggle for me as to whether I should go or not. I had been to Burma numerous times for visa runs but I hadn’t really entered the interior and a lot of questions remained unanswered. There are two schools of thought when it comes to tourism in Burma:
1) The supporters believe you should go and interact with the people of Burma, supporting the local economy where you can; and sharing your experiences once you’ve returned to foster better understanding and a global dialog. Supporters believe a tourist boycott only further damages the people of Burma and keeps them isolated and ostracized from the rest of the international community. Further, supporters recognize that the citizens of Burma are nothing like the Burmese government and they should not be cut off as such. Supporters believe tourists have an opportunity to help the citizens of Burma through direct humanitarian aid.
2) The boycotters believe you should not support the Burmese government in any way, shape or form, and that just by entering the country, you are complicit in supporting a corrupt military regime that is responsible for failing to provide basic needs to its citizens along with waging violent warfare on its people. The boycotters believe that nearly 50% of the money you spend in Burma goes directly into hands of tyrants who are responsible for the displacement, suffering and killing of thousands. Boycotters believe that tourism can been seen as a symbolic “stamp of approval” of the military junta.
So, to go or not to go? I believe everyone must ask and answer that question for themselves understanding Burma’s complexities as best they can – namely the military regime in power, the regime’s failure to recognize the overwhelmingly popular election of democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and the all-pervasive corruption and violence that ensues. Back in May, I opted not to go to Burma. The personal is political and I just wasn’t prepared to put my money into the hands of the junta just to have an adventure. And more than that, I wasn’t sure what to expect and I didn’t really want to put myself or anyone else in harm’s way. Keep in mind that Burma is one of the most impoverished and least developed nations on the planet. They lack ATMs, hospitals, decent roads and infrastructure. And no one can afford to buy a cell phone.
Fast forward to now. I’ve thought long and hard about traveling to Burma and I’ve decided I should go and here’s why: 1) To better understand the target group my NGO serves daily (namely stateless Burmese migrant youth); 2) To see this mysterious country for myself because of my convenient access to it and because I want to understand it better; and most importantly, 3) To support the local communities in need where the Burmese government is failing. In order to go to Burma knowingly putting some of my money into the hands of corrupt leaders, I feel I must offset this by putting the same amount of money into the hands of those in need – namely orphanages, schools, ethnic minority hill tribe groups. Call it a government offset if you will. I know I will be restricted from traveling to certain areas. I know I will be forced to hire a guide who will tell me what the military dictatorship wants me to hear. I know that I will monitored and perhaps followed. I know that starting a riot in Burma is probably not a good idea. Regardless, I’m launching Operation Going In! On October 21st, I will venture to Keng Tung with medical supplies, clothing, and educational materials to help those in need. While willingly putting money into the hands of the junta makes me displeased, I feel this is not enough to keep me from interacting with some of the most amazing people I’ve met in northern Thailand. I’m surrounded by Burmese people every day. Many of them are my friends, many of them are my students, all of them are delightful and kind. I just want to lend a helping hand where I can.
If you are interested in donating funds to Operation Going In here at GSW, any and all proceeds will go directly to medical supplies, educational materials and clothing that will be personally delivered to the people of Burma. Any and all support is greatly appreciated! Please click the donate button in the right-hand column under Help Me Help Others and make sure to put a note that you want your donation to support Operation Going In.
For those of you wanting to understand Burma better, please visit the World Factbook here. For a great resource on books, narratives and advice on tourism, visit the Free Burma Coalition. For in depth information about Burma’s history and the current political climate, visit Burma Campaign UK.