Back in 2012, when I first started traveling in Southeast Asia, I met travelers who told me with stars in their eyes that Myanmar, which had just opened up to tourism after 50 years of government oppression, was the place for authentic culture. “Go before it changes”, they urged me.
The window of time for those golden years was short. 2015 saw Myanmar’s largest visitor numbers, followed by a sharp decline due to unspeakable actions, once again, by the Burmese military.
As we speak, the Nobel Peace Prize-decorated State Counsellor of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been so admired for enduring years of house arrest in the name of democracy, and devoting herself to Buddhist study, is being condemned by the UN for the Rohingya persecution. Since 2016, the Burmese armed forces and police have waged a forceful, often brutal crackdown on the Rohingya people in Rakhine State in Myanmar’s northwestern region. Not only that, but also two Reuters journalists who broke the news were imprisoned for over 500 days.
Recently, Myanmar was ordered by the UN court to prevent the ongoing genocide, though only time will tell how they choose to comply.
Knowing this, should anyone go to Myanmar? This question kept me from visiting for years, until I realized who I was really hurting by not going, and that I’d already done something very similar several times before, along with millions of other people. Let’s dive in:
A Nearby Genocide
First I think it’s important to point out another situation that gets almost no media attention.
Two years ago, I visited Raja Ampat in West Papua. It’s famous for diving and is one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever been. The Indonesian government has sent numerous influencers there, many of whom I’m friends with and respect, and I’m guessing that just like me, they had no idea about the likely genocide.
There’s very little information broadcast by mainstream media, though freewestpapua.org (Warning: Disturbing images) claims over half a million lives have been lost through a brutal suppression of the people by the Indonesian military. While this can’t be verified and numbers vary greatly, this indicates a very grave situation, nonetheless.
Like everyone else who has visited and fallen in love with West Papua, I adored the people (and even found out I had an avid fan there!), loved the place, and most importantly, spent money there.
Or what about China? I spent two months traveling through the country, being shown amazing kindness by the Tibetan minority people in the autonomous prefecture. It had honestly never occurred to me that I shouldn’t be there. Supporting them felt like the best thing I could do.
Who Travel Boycotts Really Hurt
That experience in West Papua taught me that the best thing I can do in these cases is to support the people who have no safety net. Am I hurting the Burmese military by deciding not to visit Bagan? Certainly not. But the fall in tourism numbers has hurt people like my tour guide in Mandalay who supports a family of three on his salary.
Still, to be able to work in tourism at all has given him the ability to put his children through school. He didn’t have the same opportunity, having to drop out in fourth grade to work in the fields and support his family’s survival. His English is all self-taught, and his enthusiasm is infectious. Tourism quite literally changed his life. This is just one example of individuals in Myanmar who have nothing to do with the crisis, but whose livelihoods depend on tourism.
So what should we do in cases like this? Our tourism dollars are meaningful to people in these areas although, yes, just by being in Myanmar, just as by being in Indonesia, I do spend money that will eventually support the military via taxes, and so do the 7 million people who visit Bali each year.
The same is probably true of my retirement investments, many of which track international markets and buy shares in companies that at some point, support regimes doing terrible things. The same is true of the iPhone you might be reading this on, which was likely manufactured in China.
Should people travel to China, North Korea, Syria? Should people even visit the United States given the migrant detention centers and treatment of people of color? Does boycotting a place make a difference? Did any major shift in women’s rights, the end of the genocide in Rwanda, or the end of apartheid have anything to do with tourism numbers? Of course not.
According to Gill Charlton, Telegraph Travel’s Myanmar expert, “it’s important to keep the fledgling tourist industry alive as so many small poor communities rely on it,” she said. “Staying away isn’t going to change the government’s treatment of the Rohingya community as tourism from Britain and other Western countries is a very small part of their revenue.”
Boycotts might seem like a way to take a stance, and for a long time I felt that way about traveling to Myanmar, but now I understand something different:
People Are Not Their Government
The people of Myanmar are some of the kindest, most welcoming I’ve ever encountered. Just because someone lives in a country whose military or government takes certain actions, does not mean they agree or deserved to be punished for those actions.
I hope that people don’t assume that just because I’m from the US, I supported the war in Iraq (I protested against it in college), and that my government is representative of my personal values. I don’t want a wall, I believe that Black Lives Matter, and that nobody is illegal.
I also know that traveling to learn about and appreciate other cultures kills racism. We travel the world to see our own humanity in the faces of others. To realize that we are more alike than we are different, and to get to know our own world better. From my nearly 8 years as a solo female traveler, I know without fearing naïveté and without a doubt that people are mostly good.
I don’t have all of the answers, of course. I only have my own experiences. What I believe is just that – a thought, an opinion, and the same is true for everyone else. Should you travel to Myanmar right now? For me, putting money in the hands of small hotel and business owners in the developing world is more important than helping the CEO of a major hotel chain in London or Paris buy another vacation home. However it’s always a personal decision, and I hope this post helped you get a little closer to your answer.