Myanmar is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and intriguing places in the world to visit. However, there is no denying that the military junta which has been in power since 1962 has committed countless human rights violations against its people and has prevented, at times through violent suppression, any sort of real political change towards democracy. And because of the government’s actions and policies there has been an ongoing debate as to whether people should travel to Myanmar or not.
This controversial issue really got started in 1996 when the repressive government declared a ‘Visit Burma Year’ hoping to attract a half a million visitors. Not long after that declaration reports from various sources came out saying that hundreds of thousands of people were being forced to work on construction projects for things such as roads, airport runways and other tourism-related infrastructure. Likewise, thousands of people were forced from their villages to make room for these projects.
In response to these activities the National League for Democracy (NLD), Myanmar’s political opposition party lead by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, called for a complete tourism boycott. Some governments and non-governmental organizations around the world called for the same in response to the NLD’s request while others disagreed and did not support the boycott.
In simplified terms, one side said that visiting the country basically condoned the policies and actions of the military junta, and at the same time directly supported the regime with too many tourism dollars. Those opposed to the boycott said that additional tourism dollars would help the local communities more than the government, especially if travelers were to spend their money wisely (more on this later), and that more interaction with the international community would help the cause of the pro-democracy movement.
Personally, I had always been in the latter camp, but I still respected the views of those who supported the ban on tourism. And from what I have read in the past there had even been disagreements within the NLD itself as to whether or not the boycott was helpful to their ultimate cause for political and social change within the country.
So it was very big news indeed when in November of last year a senior leader of the NLD announced a major policy change by saying people should now come to see Burma in order to understand what is really going on in the country and to help the people living there. And in May of this year an official NLD Statement Regarding Tourism in Burma was made public. The statement was so strong that many other organizations around the world that had also supported the boycott changed their official stances as well.
The statement says that the problems of the country caused by the political situation still exist, but that:
“The NLD would welcome visitors who are keen to promote the welfare of the common people and the conservation of the environment and to acquire an insight into the cultural, political and social life of the country while enjoying a happy and fulfilling holiday in Burma.”
The statement talks in detail about how much the country has to offer visitors, and it points out how only about 200,000 tourists came to their country last year while Thailand got about 14 million. Realizing the significance of this information, they specifically mention that the economic difficulties of the people in Burma have caused them to change their stance on the boycott.
However, as was pointed out in the quote above, they really want visitors to be careful about how and where they spend their money. Basically they ask that you avoid the government-affiliated companies whenever possible, be aware of the environmental consequences of your purchases of goods and services, not to make children into beggars by giving money or gifts to them, and purchase high quality traditional arts and crafts as opposed to lesser quality items.
And for what it is worth, every single local that Shelley and I spoke to while visiting the country last year said they really wanted and needed more tourists to come to their country. Without other reasonable opportunities to make a living, many of these people are quite desperate for the business.
If you do decide to go, here are some simple ways to help ensure that less of your money goes to the government, which of course means more of it goes to the people who deserve it. First, avoid traveling by train, because it is run by the government. And if you fly, avoid Myanma Airways. Along with having the worst safety record of all the airlines in the country it is likewise run by the government. And if you decide to go on a tour as a means to seeing the country, avoid the large, state-owned tour operators and go with a smaller, privately owned one. Doing things like this helps promote the kinds of tourism that the NLD wants for its country.