Without doubt the current regime in Burma is one of the most corrupt, undemocratic and brutal in the world today and for many people that is reason enough to prevent them from visiting the country. So why do I believe that responsible, independent travel to Burma should be encouraged?
I recently returned from a trip to Burma and it wasn’t a decision I made lightly. First the perception, in the West, is that Burma is of an incredibly dangerous country where locals and tourists are under constant danger not to mention military surveillance. The reality for me was completely different. it felt safer on the streets of Yangon than Bangkok and even when driving through an army base in Mandalay there was no unusually heavy military presence. The residents of Yangon and Mandalay I met seem genuinely interested in foreigners and there was no reticence to them coming forward to speak with you. Criticism was widespread, particularly around the hilarious English language paper, The New Light of Myanmar which is filled with Stalinist exhortations to crush the enemies of the state and endless examples of new hydroelectric plans openings. The local joke is that you get more electricity from the state paper than the wall sockets.
Without doubt the savage repression of the Orange Revolution in 2007 showed the regime’s true colours but somehow the world has chosen to forget or conveniently ignore Tianamen Square and other equally appalling examples of politcal thuggery in the region. China is a good example of the West’s dual standards, we want our iPhones and cheap consumer goods manufactured there and choose to ignore a regime that disallows free speach, curbs religious freedom and persecutes ethic minorities. Think Fallun Gong, Tibet.
We all clapped politely at the Beijing Olympics when in truth we should have boycotted it. But economics became the decider. Sadly, Burma isn’t very important to the West, sure they have a few teak forrests left but not many thanks in part, to our fondness for all-weather garden furniture, and the rubies and emeralds are no guarentee of economic prosperity.
It is incredibly politically incorrect to say this but democracy is a luxuary; that will always take second place to food and shelter. Putting money into people’s pockets will always do more than withdrawing tourism. I met a man who owned a horse and cart in Bagan, I rented his horse at 5am for $4 and again at 5pm and I was his only customer all day. He was a lucky one.
Burma is a stunninly beautiful country, it has great hotels, a usable transport infrastructure and the most friendly people in South East Asia. I am aware that Aaung San Suu Kyi and the http://www.burmacampaign.org.uk/ advise against tourism to Burma, I disagree. Has Cuba been helped by the blockade? Did South Africa really fall due to sanctions? Burma also has a real internal problem. If democracy happens in Burma the internal tensions between the 13 internal states may create a civil war which will may evoke memoriesof the Balkans. But that isn’t the our job. Burma won’t be changed from within, it will be changed by people visiting, putting dollars in the hands of local people and talking about it.
Go today, the Generals know the writing is on the wall. Travel independantly and make sure you put your money directly in the hands of the Burmese.