Here I go again, being all serious about world problems. I am going to be that person who has to bring up the downside of visiting the travel world’s new darling, Myanmar. I wrestled with the idea of going. It weighed heavily on me knowing I could be supporting a regime that endorses ethnic cleansing. Oh you hadn’t heard that Myanmar was committing genocide? Let me briefly fill you in and tell you why I regret visiting Myanmar.
Table of Contents
Since Myanmar (Burma) received its independence from Britain in 1948, civil war has been waged continuously in various parts of the country. For decades Myanmar was ruled by a cruel and oppressive military junta that was known for random imprisonments, torture and complete lack of exposure to the outside world. Tourism was only permitted in a very controlled way and for only a day or sometimes up to a week.
In November 2010, President Thein Sein took office in an election that was stage-managed by the military junta. He freed hundreds of political prisoners, eased censorship laws and established a cordial working relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Prize-winning human rights activist who is the daughter of the beloved freedom fighter, General Aung San. She had been under house arrest for years, oppressed by the same people who assassinated her father.
In November 2015, democratic elections were held and won by Aung San Suu Kyi. Anyone who had followed events in Myanmar, as myself, would have been excited about this. She is educated, articulate and was a hero, the great hope for a democratic and free future in Myanmar. Sadly, this has not been the case.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s government doesn’t seem to exert real control over the country’s security forces, since private militias are beholden to the junta that controlled Myanmar prior to the election. These militia members continue to commit war crimes and other serious violations of human rights around the country, particularly against minority groups such as the Rohingya. Since Myanmar’s military launched operations in Rakhine state (a region on the far west, bordering Bangladesh) last October, many sources have described witnessing slaughter of civilians, unexplained disappearances, and the systematic rape of women and girls, as well as entire villages being burned.
Aung San Suu Kyi, has ignored, if not been outright complicit in the atrocities against the Rohingya. It is widely felt that she wields no power over the military and is merely a figure-head who has managed to entice western powers.
The Rohingya are one of Myanmar’s many ethnic minorities and are Muslims. They are likely descendants of Arab traders and other groups who have been in the region for generations, probably since the 15th century. The roughly 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims living in the Burmese state of Rakhine have faced apartheid like conditions since 1942.
To be specific, they have been denied citizenship under The Burmese Nationality Law. Myanmar’s government sees them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and this is a common attitude among many Burmese. The Rohingya are deprived of the right to free movement and of higher education. They are not allowed to travel without official permission and were previously required to sign a commitment not to have more than two children. They are subjected to routine forced labour where typically a Rohingya man will have to give up one day a week to work on military or government projects and one night for sentry duty. Much of their arable land, has been confiscated by the military to give to Buddhist settlers from elsewhere in Myanmar
Rejected by the country they call home and unwanted by its neighbors, the Rohingya are impoverished, virtually stateless and have been fleeing Myanmar in droves for decades.
During the Second World War. Myanmar, (at the time called Burma), was under British colonial rule. The majority Buddhist population sided with the Japanese invaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San. They wanted the British expelled and believed Japan would be victorious in the war. Conversely, the Rohingya minority stayed loyal to the British. After the war and the British victory, there was significant ill will towards the Rohingya.
In 1948, Myanmar became independent and the British rulers left. In 1962, there was a military coup by the army chief of staff General Ne Win. He implemented a program called “The Burmese Road to Socialism.” This was basically a communist manifesto and was an economic disaster for Myanmar. Scapegoating 101 teaches military dictators how to proceed in this situation…blame a minority.
The military passed a number of laws. The Emergency Immigration Act of 1974 stripped all the Rohingya of their citizenship. That was followed by the 1982 Citizenship Law, which said all Rohingya are actually foreigners; they’re actually all illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and they should all go back to Bangladesh.
More recently, roughly 500,000 Rohingya have been driven out of Rakhine state in September and into Bangladesh. Bangladesh does not recognize the Rohingya as refugees and Amnesty International says hundreds of fleeing Rohingya have been detained and forcibly returned to an uncertain fate.
Evidence is difficult to gather. Groups like Amnesty International get much of their information from satellite imagery that usually confirms what interviews with refugees say about mass executions and burning of villages. The Tula Toli Massacre is one such example. Though the total death toll cannot be determined due to the restrictions enforced by Myanmar government on the entry of journalists, aid workers, diplomats and eye-witnesses suggest the number of people killed during the massacre is close to 500.
Read More about recent events: Desperate Rohingya Flee Myanmar
The UN considers this a Level 3 Emergency and has just this week requested funds for over 700,000 Rohingya children. Read More
Although as I have written, the violence is not new, the increased violence of the past 2 weeks stems from an attack on the Burmese military. Militants from Rohingya minority stormed police posts on August 25. The attacks killed at least a dozen members of Burma’s security forces and prompted clashes that have resulted in the deaths of some 400 people. The Burmese military claims most of the dead are Rohingya insurgents, but Rohingya activists counter that civilian casualties are the majority of those killed.
This militant attack was by an organization called ARSA, (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army). This little-known outfit has very little resources, is relatively new, and made up of foreigners. The Rohingya, historically, have been the most non-violent people in Myanmar. However now, foreigners have tried to radicalize the Rohingya population. The Rohingya at this point have nothing to lose. Not to excuse any kind of violence, but I wonder how many of us in this position could stay completely peaceful. I know I couldn’t.
Some experts consider this attack on the military just a convenient excuse and the reaction completely disproportionate. Kind of like killing a fly with a sledgehammer. The military was already engaging in a buildup. Now they had an excuse to try to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. In some areas, all the Buddhist residents were evacuated, but the military did not evacuate a single Rohingya civilian prior to bringing in helicopter gunships and soldiers. They burned villages and drove much of the Rohingya into the forests and over the border
It’s hard to imagine why this Nobel Prize winning human rights activists is so silent about this genocide. At first it seemed she was trying to diplomatically walk a thin line between angering the international community and angering the nationalist Buddhist monks who have significant power among the people. Lately it seems that the ethnic cleansing doesn’t really bother her.
The BBC tried to press her to actually use the term Rohingya, and she refused. She was later interviewed by Mishal Husain, a prominent BBC interviewer, and was caught on a hot mic saying “No one told me that I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.”
I had always associated Buddhism with peace. Buddhist monks don’t start wars and cause problems, right? Well in Myanmar, the truth is shattering my cozy little image. There are a group of hardline anti-Islamist Buddhist Monks called Ma Ba Tha that are spreading fear and hate amongst the community.
The Buddhism followed in Myanmar is not the Buddhism most are familiar with. They don’t recognize the Dalai Lama. Theravada Buddhism is actually very militant. They believe all other ideologies and religions have to be suppressed in order for Buddhism to thrive. They believe that Islam is a threat to their country.
Muslims make up only about 4 percent of the country’s 53 million people, and the Rohingya make up part of that minority. It’s hard to imagine that 4 percent of a country is a threat but this is how fear mongering works. I’ve seen this story before. I see it now all over the world. Fear of Islamization is what causes countries to close its borders to Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
Fear is what makes many people turn their backs on humanity.
I visited Myanmar in February of 2016 without knowing as much as I should have. Prior to my trip I knew about the cruel military dictatorship of the past and about the “hero activist” now in charge. After my trip was planned, literally days before I left, I was shown a video by a friend of Rohingya children being thrown into the fires in front of their families. I honestly cannot vouch for the origin of the video. I am not the NSA. However, if there was any shred of truth to this, I wanted to find out. I was naive to think I would learn any of this while there. Absolutely nobody will talk about this subject. I encountered people who spoke English well enough to ask me about Donald Trump but suddenly clam up and feign misunderstanding at my questions.
Rakhine state is completely off-limits to tourists and most locals. The government doesn’t want anyone from the outside to see what’s happening. If it wasn’t for humanitarian aid groups and people on other sides of the borders, nobody would know. These are the tactics of “Old Myanmar”, the Myanmar the existed prior to 2010, when things “changed”.
I actually visited during this time, back in 2006, as a day trip from Thailand. We had to leave our passports at the border, because we weren’t supposed to be staying there. The tour guide warned us not to ask locals anything about their lives. Do not discuss politics. There are spies everywhere. If anyone even talks to a tourist, they can be accused of giving us information the government doesn’t want us to have and will promptly be tossed in jail and tortured. I could see fear in people’s eyes back then. Many of them had never seen a western tourist. The locals were shy, sweet, and quick to smile. That one day broke my heart. I will never forget it.
I was thrilled to learn about the elections and changes in Myanmar and very excited to go back, to once again see these sweet fearful people that deserved so much better. By the time I actually went, I had learned of new atrocities in Myanmar and my joy was significantly dampened.
I researched where to stay and how to support locals, not the government. Any large or expensive resort is either owned by the generals or foreigners. Therefore staying there does little to help local people. I chose small hotels and guest houses. Still, I had to purchase a visa. Visa equals government money. I had to pay $20 to see the archaeological site at Bagan, perhaps the most visited place in the country. Does this money go to conservation of the historical site? Sadly, only a tiny portion of the $4 million per year they make does.
Read More: Entrance Fees
There are educated tourists and tourist groups out there who care about this sort of thing and make an effort. However, many really don’t care where their money goes. Example: One of the best luxury hotels is the Aureum Palace, owned by U Tay Za, reportedly the richest man in the country and a close associate of the former military dictator, Gen. Than Shwe. U Tay Za is also the owner of Air Bagan and Asia Wings (the country’s biggest private airlines), five other luxury hotels and beach resorts in Myanmar, and the Htoo Group, a conglomerate that includes mobile-phone services and timber concessions. Mr. Tay Za has been described by the United States Department of the Treasury as a “notorious henchman and arms dealer.” His hotel has been criticized by UNESCO for ruining the landscape. It STILL has over 80% occupancy.
Ok, not the main focus here as a travel blogger, but I will say that arming the people who commit atrocities should be one of the first things to stop. Many western countries sell arms to nations who do bad things with them. Let’s be clear. I’m not singling out these countries as being any worse than my own (the United States). But regarding Myanmar, it is notable that the British, Australian and Israeli governments have recently trained or provided military equipment for the Myanmar military.
Countries need to open their borders to refugees. India, Bangladesh and China have all threatened to send the Rohingya back to what ultimately may lead to their deaths. I’ve heard the Rohingya called the most friendless people in the world and it seems to be a true statement.
Let’s get back to us tourists. Should we be going to countries like this? I foolishly went, hoping to learn more and see for myself what’s going on. No such luck. No tourist will accomplish this. Journalists can barely accomplish this at the moment. I ended up cutting my trip short after just a few days because it didn’t feel right visiting Myanmar under these circumstances.
Oh, every country has its issues. You might as well not go anywhere. The USA, isn’t exactly a pillar of ethics either.
Yes, I get all that. I agree…somewhat. This is a genocide. It is systematic, state sponsored, ethnic cleansing. This is not your average human rights issue. If we don’t as travelers draw some sort of line, then what’s the point of caring about any of it? Some call this Southeast Asia’s Srebenica (the July 1995 massacre of 8000 Bosnian Muslims). The US and NATO went to war in that case! Let that digest for a second.
Why punish the locals? It helps them if we go.
I typically agree with this line of thinking. Spending our money in thoughtful ways, can really help locals in poor countries. I think that increased tourism in many cases helps countries “open up” to new ideas and ultimately leads to positive things. However, I’m not sure this is the case in Myanmar. Locals that won’t talk about these issues aren’t exactly prime candidates for education about why they should care about racism and ethnic cleansing.
In addition, I don’t see how continuing to spend money here as tourists, money that mostly goes right to the government, actually helps locals. Not to mention, an estimated 40% of money spent here by tourists actually leaves the country. A pedicure at a hotel spa, dinner at a restaurant; these seemingly innocuous activities usually put money in the hands of corporations outside of Myanmar. Furthermore, no matter where you spend money, the taxes go to the government.
The more I learn, the more disturbed I am. The Buddhist monks leading the anti-Muslim charge have tons of grassroots support. Do I want to spend my money helping these people? Absolutely not! Do I feel sorry for the good people, the ones who don’t support this and desperately need money? Of course! Most of the people I met were incredibly sweet. Unfortunately in this situation, I think I did more harm than good by visiting Myanmar.
This is a question I think more of us should be asking ourselves with regards to many issues in this world. What did you do when you knew? Many people living in Nazi controlled Europe who survived were asked this question. People to this day are still judged harshly by their actions decades ago. While comparisons to Nazi Germany and Myanmar may be false equivalencies, they do make a point worth making. Imagine traveling to Germany in 1941 because you really wanted to go to Octoberfest and you felt that you were learning the culture and helping locals by doing so. Do you think this would have been an OK excuse?
People are very quick to point out differences when you compare Myanmar to Nazi Germany or other places that commit genocide. Darfur, Bosnia, Myanmar…do we really want to spend energy pointing out how all the ways that this massacre is somehow better or worse than that massacre? It seems that we are just looking for excuses to travel somewhere “new and cool” and get some pretty pictures. I think that people are very skilled at finding excuses to do things they know they shouldn’t.
This needs our concern. This needs our outrage. Often times, our only power is our money.
I think the best thing for travel writers to do is spread the word. Let tourism boards or tour companies or hotels know the reason trips are turned down. Word will spread and if the people and powers that be see that they are losing valuable tourist dollars by allowing this atrocity to continue, perhaps change will occur. Perhaps this is a naive rosy view that I hold. I know one thing for certain, throwing my hands in the air and not trying to change anything is NOT an option.
Every dollar spent there lets the government know that they can keep doing what they are doing with impunity.
To Help The Rohingya: New York Times: Rohingya Aid
Remember what Aung San Suu Kyi herself said about tourism in 1995. She told an interviewer, “Tourists better stay at home and read some of the many human rights reports.” I say the same thing today.
Tell me in the comments what you think. Are there points I have missed?
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