A few years ago, I was lucky enough to spend two weeks traveling around Myanmar. I loved nearly everything about it, from the greasy, 50-cent noodles on the streets of Yangon to the breathtaking temple-city of Bagan. It was unlike any other place I’d been, completely unspoiled by the trappings of Western culture that have become so ubiquitous in other parts of Southeast Asia (McDonald’s in Jakarta, anyone?). Yet there was, and still is, something that bothers me about my trip there.
First, an extremely condensed version of Myanmar’s modern history: the country, then Burma, achieved independence from Britain in 1948. The man responsible for this incredible moment in Burmese history was the revolutionary General Aung San. He was assassinated just six months before Burma saw independence from Britain. Aung San (colloquially known as “Bogyoke” by the Myanmar people) is still widely loved and his legacy has been carried on by his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi. But more on her later.
The transition to independence was tumultuous. 1962 brought a coup d’état by General Ne Win, leading to the establishment of a military government. There were several student protests against the government throughout the 60s and 70s, all of which were violently suppressed. Ne Win remained in power for 26 years.
In 1988, there was the 8888 Uprising (so named for the fact that many of the events occurred on August 8, 1988). It began with university students in Yangon, and quickly spread throughout the country. Unfortunately the call for democracy was not fulfilled, and these protests, like the ones of the prior decades, were suppressed by the military. The Myanmar government claims 350 people died in the protests; everyone else puts that figure in the thousands. Aung San Suu Kyi, a prominent figure in the National League for Democracy, was placed under house arrest. 6,000 other supporters of the National League for Democracy were detained as well.
In the 1990 elections, the NLD won 392 of 495 seats in Parliament. Additionally, they received 59% of the national votes. Of course, the junta (military government) declared the election null and void, and remained in power. (Aung San Suu Kyi, by the way, remained under house arrest for 15 of 21 years, and was only released in 2010.)
When the 2010 elections rolled around – surprise, surprise – the Union Solidarity and Development Party (aka the military junta) won. Although this coincided with Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest, the NLD chose not to participate in the elections. In 2012, international powers were invited to monitor the elections for fraudulent activity, which was met with varying degrees of success. It did, however, lead to the lifting of economic sanctions the USA and Europe had long imposed on Myanmar. This also meant that American and European citizens now were allowed to travel to Myanmar.
A booming tourist industry was born. For the past five years, this industry has greatly expanded and has injected new life into Myanmar’s economy. The question is, how should one feel about traveling to a country with a history (and present) of such gross human rights abuses?
Myanmar, up until quite recently, operated under a military dictatorship. It was not until the 2015 election of the de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi that the country experienced any type of democracy. But here’s the thing: even though Myanmar is theoretically democratic now, this is far from true in practice. In fact, the military government there is committing ethnic cleansing against its own people as we speak. Furthermore, Aung San Suu Kyi, who the West had pinned their hopes on as remedying the situation, has been all but silent on the subject. Her silence has been taken by the international community as a tacit endorsement of what the military has been doing.
The Rohingya Muslims have long been marginalized in Myanmar, and are not considered Burmese citizens. Despite the fact that the Rohingya have been living in Myanmar for centuries, the government there classes them as Bangladeshi refugees and has long kept them confined to ghettos in the northern Rakhine region (which borders Bangladesh). They have regularly committed atrocities against this group of people, which have escalated from confining them to this area to unspeakable acts of rape and murder. The situation has worsened significantly in recent months, with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh to escape this ethnic cleansing. While Myanmar has been open to tourists since 2012, access to much of the country is still restricted. The Rakhine region is one such restricted area.
I had a rudimentary understanding of all of this when I decided to travel to Myanmar, and tried to consider the ethics of going. Should I be traveling to a country and giving money to its government when it’s committing such unspeakable actions? The kind of thing we always look back on 15, or 20, or 30 years down the line, and say “Never again”? (Most hotels are owned by the government, and you’re required to pay fees as you enter into certain historical areas. There’s no getting around the fact that if you travel to Myanmar, you’ll be paying the government directly.)
In some ways, I was just being selfish. Myanmar seemed like such an interesting place, and one I had wanted to visit for a long time. To some extent, going there required compartmentalizing some of these ethical questions.
But I also wondered if some good could come of it. I had hoped that I could learn more about the politics of this country if I went there myself. My favorite part of my stay there was going on a three-day trek from the mountains of Kalaw down to Inle Lake. Not only was the trek itself beautiful and rewarding, but I also had a chance to chat with our guide quite a bit. Don’t get me wrong – Ko Min was hesitant to voice anti-government sentiments even in the middle of the woods, but he did say he was a supporter of ASSK and that he hoped she would be elected president (this was two years before the elections itself).
It is also worth noting, however, that anti-Muslim rhetoric among Burmese Buddhists was alive and well even back in 2014. During our stay in Mandalay, we hired a taxi for the day to take us around to the major sites. Our driver began the day by showing us a video on his phone of an Israeli parliament member espousing the evils of Islam. After a brief and bizarre misunderstanding of his thinking we were all Muslim (presumably because we were horrified by his tirade), he quickly backtracked and told us he was a simple working man who didn’t involve himself in politics. The rest of the day, however, was marked by strange comments and anti-Muslim sentiments.
While I’d like to think progress toward democracy has been made in the past few years, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD remain far too silent on the genocide of Rohingyas. I sincerely hope that these basic human rights issues are addressed, and that the world at large starts paying closer attention. Traveling to Myanmar made me pay closer attention to the country’s changing political climate. Part of our responsibility as tourists and travelers is to educate ourselves about the places we visit, and to do our best to educate others who might not have the chance to experience it themselves. While I still grapple with the ethics of visiting a country like Myanmar, I am ultimately very glad that I did.
Interested in learning more about the crisis of the Rohingyas in Myanmar? Here are some resources and ways you can help.
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