Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Myanmar (Burma)

When we were in Cambodia, we met an American Vet who was interested to hear that we were going to visit Myanmar. He was reading an article in a magazine about the plight of the Burmese people and in light of the Iraq war, they wanted to know, "When is the US going to invade us?" The Burmese people have been fighting for democracy for decades and could use a little help...

Tomorrow we leave for Myanmar (Burma): of all our destinations on this trip, Myanmar has been the most difficult place to get to in terms of waiting for visas (10 days), waiting for confirmation on plane tickets (more than 1 week)... and then all of our plans were readjusted when I was bitten by that dog last week. But, finally. We go!

Don't worry when you don't hear from us for the next 3 weeks: we will be cut off from the outside world once we leave Chiang Mai. Finding internet cafes in Myanmar is about as difficult as finding large underwear in Asia (read impossible). Besides that, the government controls the internet and I've read travelers cannot use their own email accounts but must sign up for an address with a company there. This is probably so the government can keep tabs on what people are saying -- Burmese citizens are not allowed to have hotmail or yahoo accounts (these sites are blocked) and people who own modems must have them registered. We are about to enter a country described by the US State Department as, "an underdeveloped, agrarian country ruled by an authoritarian military junta. The country's military government suppresses all expression of opposition to its rule."

Myanmar has a long history of conflict, but I'll leave it to the historical scholars to tell you about that -- they get paid to write this stuff, and they're probably better with the details (there is tons of info online). But just to give you an idea about the nature of the junta that runs Myanmar, following is an excerpt from the US State Department's web site on more recent events, "Burma previously experienced major political unrest in 1988 when the military regime jailed as well as killed thousands of Burmese democracy activists. In 1990, the military government refused to recognize the results of an election that the opposition won overwhelmingly. Burma experienced major demonstrations in 1996 and 1998. In May 2003, individuals affiliated with the Burmese government attacked a convoy carrying opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Sagaing Division. Dozens were killed or injured."

Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the 'winner' of the 1990 elections, was put under house arrest for 6 years when the ruling junta refused to recognize the results of the election. But Suu Kyi continued to campaign for democracy and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her tenacious belief in a democratic Burma. She believes in this so much, she chose to stay in Burma rather than visit her dying husband in England in 1999 -- she was concerned that if she left Burma, she would never be able to return and the plight of the Burmese citizens would be entirely out of her hands for good.

There is a lot of debate in the travel world: "Should you go to Myanmar?"

Following is Lonely Planet's take on the issue:
Reasons Not to Go: Aung San Suu Kyi has asked tourists not to; the government used forced labour to ready tourist-related sights and services; international tourism can be seen as a stamp of approval to the Myanmar government; the government forbids travel to many areas, particularly in areas inhabited by minority groups; it's impossible to visit without some money going to the military junta (visa, departure fee, tax on purchases); and Activists claim that tourism dollars fuel government repression directly.

Reasons to Go: Tourism remains one of the few industries to which ordinary locals have access - in terms of income and communication; vast majority of locals want you there; human-rights abuses are less likely to occur in areas where the international community is present; the government stopped mandating foreigners change 200.00 into government notes upon arrival; the majority (possibly over 80%) of a careful independent traveller's expenses goes into the private sector; and Keeping the people isolated from international witnesses to internal oppression may only cement the government's ability to rule.

Obviously, Benjamin and I have decided to go. While I deeply respect her mission and the sacrifices she has made, I don't share Aung San Suu Kyi's belief that tourism is a stamp of approval on the repressive government's activities. As one pro-democracy activists put it, further isolation will not help Burma but harm it. Considering that large and powerful governments in the world allow and even aid the government of Myanmar to continue as they are, I feel there are bigger fish to fry than visiting foreigners who would like to see for themselves what's happening in Myanmar. Maybe it's a selfish point of view. Maybe it's naive of me to think that the Burmese people might benefit from contact with the outside world. In any event, the people I've met who have been to Myanmar come back with glowing reports on the warmth and kindness of the people -- they are happy to have us there.


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