This September we spent the month travelling through Myanmar. We crossed the border in Thailand at Mae Sot and walked with our bags across the Friendship Bridge to Myawaddy in Myanmar.
We’d already made our travel arrangements and spent $50 USD on our Myanmar visas before we were really aware of what was going on in the Western state of Rakhine. The night before we were due to travel, we sat in Mae Sot and read the news headlines about the brutal treatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar. The UN were calling it a ‘textbook case of ethnic cleansing’ by the military.
I had visited Myanmar five years ago, spending only one week in Yangon. Back then, there were no land borders open, no ATMs in the country, sim cards could cost up to $7,000 USD and the WIFI was atrocious.
During our recent trip to Thailand, backpackers were repeatedly telling us that Myanmar was their favourite country to travel in Southeast Asia. I was eager to see how much the country had changed since its first democratic elections in 2015.
After so much hope for the country after the election of National League for Democracy’s leader, Aung San Su Kyi, it pained me to see such atrocities taking place. And, even though the government continues to this day to deny it, as hundreds upon thousands of people fled across the border to Bangladesh, each with a horrific story to tell, the evidence for what is happening is plain to see.
Would we cancel our plans to travel to Myanmar?
We decided to go ahead with our plans, yet feelings of guilt would not let me sleep easily during our whole time in the country.
Should we be boycotting travel to Myanmar? Is our presence in the country a symbol that we condone the ethnic cleansing? By travelling in Myanmar, are we financially contributing to the military power that are carrying out killings, rapes and other deplorable acts of violence that we’ve read about?
We debated these questions (in hushed voices) with several other travellers that we met along the way who found themselves in a similar moral dilemma.
Two doctors from Germany had recently been working with an NGO in Bangladesh, had visited Cox’s Bazaar and had seen with their own eyes thousands of displaced Rohingya people living on the border of the two countries in squalor. Like us, they felt uneasy about travelling in Myanmar and had only decided to go ahead with their trip as it had been planned and paid for months in advance.
Another female doctor from the UK, who we met in Kalaw, was appalled at what she was reading in the news and felt totally helpless at being denied access to the area of the country where people most desperately needed help. She was about to return to Thailand where she would be working at Myanmar refugee camps in Mae Sot.
Should we have cancelled our plans to Myanmar?
When you travel to a country with a bad human rights record, no matter how hard you try to spend in the local economy, inevitably your money will end up lining the pockets of government officials. The 25,000 Kyat (approx. $20 USD) entry fee that we paid to visit the temples of Bagan, the $10 USD entrance fee to visit the Inle Lake zone and of course the $50 USD visa fee that we spent before even arriving in the country. If you want to make sure that not one dollar of your money goes towards such evil, then better stay away altogether.
Then there’s the symbolic gesture you’re making. Does your presence somehow suggest that you condone what is happening in the country in which you are travelling? If you feel that it does, again, better cancel your trip.
Aung San Su Kyi, former heroine turned villain, famously told people to boycott Myanmar in 1999.
“I still think that people should not come to Burma because the bulk of the money from tourism goes straight into the pockets of the generals. And not only that, it’s a form of moral support for them because it makes the military authorities think that the international community is not opposed to the human rights violations which they are committing all the time. They seem to look on the influx of tourists as proof that their actions are accepted by the world.”
Back then, all hotels were government owned, so this statement held much more weight. Now, however, it is possible to travel in the country and benefit local people by avoiding government-run businesses as much as possible, choosing small guesthouses and eateries, and putting money directly into the hands of local people.
On the second point of Aung San Su Kyi’s statement, whether your presence is a form of moral support for the government, well that’s something that you’ll have to decide for yourself.
The case against boycotting Myanmar:
After thinking long and hard about whether the boycotting of a country really does make any kind of positive difference, I came back to the following points:
Damage to local businesses
First of all, during our time in Myanmar, we stayed at many local guesthouses, ate at small family-run restaurants and bought goods from local ‘mom and pop’ shops. We were surprised at how many local people, of different ethnic groups, wanted to speak to us about the situation in Rakhine.
People were worried, that after seeing a small surge in tourism in recent years, this new crisis would deter tourists once again, having a detrimental effect on their businesses and livelihoods. I felt sorry for these people who had already suffered so much in their lives, to now have their hopes dashed of living in a normal country where they could make a living by welcoming foreign visitors.
The sharing of information and promotion of awareness
Going by the one-sided information given in the newspapers in Myanmar, it’s clear that people are being given a completely different picture of what is going on in Rakhine. They are told the story that their leaders are heroically fighting Islamic terrorism whilst protecting innocent Buddhist and Hindu families. Even if we only spoke to a handful of people about the ‘other side of the story’, I hope that we made them think differently about the propaganda that they are being fed.
In turn, they also educated us and opened our eyes to other parts of the country where similar repression by the military may be taking place, yet is not in the headlines. In northern Shan state, where visitors are not permitted, ethnic minority armies, including the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, have been engaged in clashes with the military for years. Who knows how the ethnic Palaung (or Ta’ang) civilians are being treated there? Military repression of various ethnic minority groups has been going on for decades in Myanmar.
More information that filters back and to from visitors can only be a good thing in the long run, in raising awareness of such human rights violations.
Which countries deserve boycotting anyway?
After we left the country, I read an article about how arms companies in Israel were refusing to stop selling arms to Myanmar, in light of the evidence that the weapons are being used against their own people. Israeli companies are also reported to have trained special forces in Rakhine.
It made me question our methods of deciding which countries to boycott. My home country of the UK makes millions of pounds selling arms to Saudi Arabia, a country with atrocious human rights abuses, women’s rights violations, as well as substantial evidence that they fund ISIS, the terrorist group responsible for attacks all over the world.
I wholeheartedly disagree with the UK’s stance on arms sales and yet I have family in the UK, I pay my taxes in the UK and I can never imagine boycotting the country. I also know that most citizens of the UK would agree with me on the above, just as I’m sure most citizens of Myanmar would be sickened by their government’s actions towards the Rohingya Muslims.
We recently published an article about the destruction of the Tibetan Buddhist University City of Larung Gar in Eastern China, with cultural treasures being destroyed and many people being displaced from their homes, yet China remains the fourth most visited country in the world.
I feel that if one decides to boycott a certain country, one must not turn a blind eye to the many other countries with questionable human rights records.
Does boycott actually harm those in power?
Whilst tourism boycott undoubtedly damages the livelihood of the guesthouse owner in Hpa An, the fisherman taking tourists on boat trips on Inle Lake and the family that runs a local restaurant in Bagan, does it actually hurt the ones in power, the ones responsible for the atrocities?
When Myanmar finally opened up to tourists in 2011, there was a belief that tourist numbers would rise dramatically. In 2012 Myanmar passed the one million mark for the number of visitors to enter the country. In 2014, the direct contribution of travel and tourism was 2.2% of total GDP. The sad fact is, that your refusal to spend in the country is having little impact on the overall revenue of the government.
Most of the government’s money is made in the exporting of petroleum gas, dried legumes, raw sugar, non-knit men’s suits and rice. (Source) The country shipped $11.5 billion worth of goods around the world in 2016 (Source), with the top export destinations being Thailand, China, India and Singapore. So if you want to hurt their economy – you’d be better off boycotting all Myanmar made products while you travel. Myanmar is also the world’s second-largest producer of Opium and the largest producer of methamphetamines in the world. (Source: Wikipedia.) So better stay away from these, too.
So, whilst your tourist dollar (especially if you’re a backpacker who doesn’t stay in expensive hotels) makes up a tiny fraction of the total revenue that the government of Myanmar makes each year. Your tourist dollar does make up a much larger percentage in revenue for the local businesses that rely on tourism.
Oliver Slow, Chief in Staff at Frontier Myanmar told us:
“What is happening in Rakhine State and over the border in Bangladesh, is a truly deplorable situation with tens of thousands of people, mainly Rohingya, fleeing violence and living in desperate conditions in makeshift camps. Many of those arriving are doing so with harrowing tales and little more than the clothes on their back.
But I don’t see how a tourism boycott in this instance would be beneficial. Who would benefit from such a move? It certainly wouldn’t be the tens of thousands of people who rely on the country’s growing tourism industry in order to make a living.
When the country was under military rule and effectively closed off to the outside world, there were almost no opportunities for the majority of the population to make a livelihood. While the transition has been far from perfect, one thing it has done is enabled people to start operating their own businesses. The tourism sector is one industry where this has happened en masse. A boycott would only make it worse for these people and certainly wouldn’t make a dent on the coffers of the military.
At the same time, continued engagement is crucial. It’s early days in the country’s transition, and it will still require continued support from the international community. The only realistic outcome of disengagement from the country today would be the country turning in on itself, and we all know how that worked out in the past.”
Tourism could help
In some cases, tourism has been a positive force for change. For example, Romania once used caged dancing bears as tourist attractions. With increased awareness and disgust at this form of entertainment, the bear ‘watching’ has now been made illegal and tourist money goes to support the conservation of the bears in their natural habitat.
I feel that in Thailand, tourist disapproval has helped to improve the lives of elephants. You no longer see mahouts with their elephants selling sweetcorn on the streets of Bangkok and elephant riding camps are slowly being shut down, in favour of elephant sanctuaries where riding is prohibited.
While the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar is on an incomparable level, and will undoubtedly make tourists think twice about travelling there, perhaps isolating the country at this time is not the best option. Could tourism actually contribute to a positive change in the long run?
We spoke to Marcus Allender, founder of the travel website, Go-Myanmar.com who told us:
“The humanitarian crisis in northern Rakhine will give pause to many people considering a trip to Myanmar – and for those who find it too troubling, it is understandable if they choose not to visit. However, the country remains totally safe for foreign visitors and no recognised group on any side is calling for a travel boycott; if people do not travel in the belief that isolating Myanmar in this way will help improve the plight of the Rohingya, then I believe that is a grave mistake.
Myanmar is a poor country with a population of 53 million people, the vast majority of whom are not to blame for this situation. Tourism can help improve their lives both through increased incomes and exposure to different worldviews. While tourists in Myanmar are of course not going solve the current crisis, over time they are more likely than not, to help improve the situation. Conversely, isolating the country will only increase the sense of victimhood amongst the general population and bolster the nationalist extremists.”
What do you think? Would you travel to Myanmar under the circumstances?
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Nikki Scott | Founder & Editor
Nikki is the founding editor of South East Asia Backpacker and The Backpacker Network. In her early twenties, she left her home in the North of England on a solo backpacking adventure and never returned! After six months on the road, she founded a print magazine that became legendary on the Banana Pancake Trail. The rest is history.