This is a guest post written by Cindy and Simon of Free Two Roam about their recent travels in Myanmar. Here they write why they decided to travel to Myanmar despite current events happening there. You read more about Myanmar here. Ifb you’re wondering if you should still travel in Myanmar in 2019, then maybe read this updated Myanmar itinerary post.
Should You Travel To Myanmar, And Why We Did
On our second night in Bagan’s old town, we made the short walk from our hotel across a dusty quadrangle to eat dinner. We’d picked a small, family run vegetarian restaurant to try. Boy, was it a great pick. As we came to discover, Myanmar has some amazing vegetarian dishes, and this restaurant served up some of the best food we’d have all holiday.
But what made our evening even more special than the food was our hosts. The service was quick, extremely friendly and personal. The highlight came at the end of our meal, when the owner’s son performed a short marionette show, just for us. His father then took photos of us all together, perhaps for Instagram or for TripAdvisor, or perhaps just for their own memories.
This was one of the main things that we loved about Myanmar. Its growing tourism industry has not yet rendered these sort of intimate experiences a rarity, and we hope that it never will.
Myanmar had long been on our travel bucket list. After the government crafted its tourism master plan in 2013 in an effort to attract more international visitors, several of our family and friends visited the country. They all came back with glowing reports. So early in 2017 we excitedly booked our own trip to Myanmar.
But in September of that year, there were suddenly new reports of ethnic cleansing in the Rakhine state, perpetrated by Myanmar’s military against members of the Rohingya ethnic minority.
Shocked, and with our holiday rapidly approaching, we had to make a quick decision. Should we still go?
Well actually, there were three decisions. There was the financial one; could we afford to back out? There was the question of our personal safety; was it too dangerous to go? Finally, there was an ethical dilemma. But I’ll save that one for last.
The financial decision was an obvious one. We had forked out a lot of money up front for the holiday, and if we cancelled, it wasn’t obvious that we would get it back through insurance. Still, if we’d thought that it was ethically wrong to continue with the trip, we would have taken the hit to our bank account anyway.
The question of personal safety was also fairly quickly put to rest. Although we would be spending some time in the Rakhine state, it would be on Ngapali Beach, within a closely guarded tourist precinct. The risk of being caught up in retaliatory strikes by Rohingya militants was fairly low.
So we were soon left grappling with the moral dilemma. Is it right to visit a country after its government has engaged in ethnic cleansing?
Now, let’s be clear; our decision did not hinge on whether or not we thought the attacks had occurred, as described in the international media. Although it seemed very likely that they had (and the government has since accepted some responsibility), we weren’t at all in a position to evaluate the conflicting claims coming from both sides. So for the purposes of our decision, we assumed the worst, that the accusations were 100% true.
What is Right?
But what exactly do I mean by “is it right”? Does it mean that if we visit Myanmar that we don’t care about genocide? Or does it mean that in some way we’d be helping the government, perhaps condoning their actions, or even worse, increasing the likelihood of repeat occurrences?
Let’s look at each of these in turn. I don’t think you can reasonably argue that simply visiting Myanmar means that you don’t care about the attacks. Given that the vast majority of people don’t support genocide, you’d have to back that accusation up with plenty of other evidence. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Likewise, we weren’t condoning the government’s actions. Logically, simply being in a country does not imply that you support its government’s activities. There are plenty of heavily visited countries with varying levels of autocratic government.
For example, many people have visited Cuba, ourselves included. Cuba has a very chequered history of suppressing and persecuting its people. The same goes for Iran and many other Middle Eastern countries. Visiting them does not imply support for their government’s policies, their treatment of their citizens, or even their citizens’ value systems, many of which are antithetical to our western values.
In fact, you could probably find something you disagreed with, either ethically or politically, in most countries. For instance, like us, many travellers might disagree with the Australian government’s treatment of the boat people who arrive in our northern waters seeking refugee status. But that doesn’t mean that by holidaying in Australia they support that practice.
So instead for us the issue at stake was, by visiting Myanmar after these events, would we somehow contribute to their continuation; or conversely, would our visit have a positive impact that moved Myanmar in the right direction, making such attacks less likely to be repeated?
Many would argue that a key reason not to travel to Myanmar in the wake of these events would be to send a message to Myanmar’s government that such actions by their military are not acceptable. It’s certainly possible that if enough people did this, it would put a solid dent in visitor numbers. That would add additional pressure on top of the almost universal international outcry.
The Flip Side
The flip side of this is that cancelling our trip would have impacted not only Myanmar’s government but its people as well. We had organised our trip through a fantastic local tourist agency, and we’d spent quite a lot of money with them. They’d arranged and booked all of our accommodation and our tour guides.
This agency is run by an incredibly passionate young lady, who is going all out to grow her business. In fact, her level of service and her desire to make our time in Myanmar memorable was part of what made our holiday so special. Cancelling on her simply to make a statement to the government would have had a huge impact on her and on the people who work for her.
What’s more, all of the excellent guides that she had organised for us were freelancers themselves. Despite the explosion of tourism in Myanmar, our guides were still struggling to make decent money, partly due to the growing numbers of unlicensed guides. Even though tourism pays an order of magnitude more than most other jobs in Myanmar, cancelling our tours would have hit them hard, especially since we were travelling right at the start of peak season.
If we’d cancelled, we never would have made it to Inle Lake or Bagan, we would never have watched that marionette show, and we would never have made that connection with the restaurant owner and his family. The money that we spent on that amazing evening would have been used elsewhere, as would the money that we spent in plenty of other restaurants and businesses throughout Myanmar.
All in all, cancelling our trip would have had a negative impact on many people’s lives. If other travellers followed suit, it would have significantly affected many in Myanmar’s fledgeling tourism industry, just as they worked hard to raise themselves up into the middle class. As an example of just how hard they are trying, one of our guides was also running a hotel laundry business on the side. For many of us, this business alone would be a huge undertaking.
The Power of the Middle Class
Like many undeveloped countries (and some developed ones), Myanmar still has a huge income disparity. As of 2013, 75% of the country had no electricity and a quarter of the country lived in poverty. A small number of people control most of the country’s riches. Despite the country opening up to the world, corruption still flourishes. For Myanmar to kill off this corruption and take up more democratic practices, it needs to build out its middle class.
Only a strong middle class can pressure the government to clamp down on corruption and to put stronger controls on how the military engages its citizens. Only once the middle class accounts for a significant percentage of the population will Myanmar truly progress. Tourism is the single most important driver for raising people’s incomes, and consequently for growing the middle class.
By continuing with our holiday, we had an opportunity to contribute to that growth. In some sense, this was a much more significant and quantifiable way to help prevent future acts of ethnic cleansing. Of course, it is a longer-term play. The middle class does not grow overnight, but each injection of tourist revenue incrementally helps.
Sharing Values and Culture
The final positive benefit of continuing with our trip was our interactions with the people of Myanmar. We chatted with our guides, our drivers and other people that we met along the way. We learnt more about their country, the things that they value, and the struggles that they face. In turn, they learnt a bit about ours.
Not only did this help us better understand the complexities of their current political system, and the challenges (and opportunities) that they face, I also think it helped give them hope too. With gradually increasing individual wealth, they can eventually overcome those challenges.
So that was how we solved our ethical dilemma, But I’d be lying if I said that our decision did not play on our minds leading up to (and even during) our trip. These sorts of things are never as clear-cut as many would like to suggest. For example, would we still have gone ahead and travelled to Myanmar if we hadn’t already booked and paid for our trip? I can’t unequivocally say that we would. Instead, we might have pushed it further down our list and gone somewhere else.
In the end, though, we’re comfortable with our decision. Myanmar is an incredible country, with a fascinating culture, a rich history and amazing, hard-working people. We’d love to go back and see more of the country. Hopefully, it can move past these horrible events and develop into a country that cherishes and protects the rights of all of its citizens, while protecting the things that make it unique.