This trip to SE Asia is just about over. We’re back in Bangkok for a few days of sightseeing and shopping, then we fly back to the Great Frozen North (where, from what we hear, it has been unseasonably warm. Though, if history is any guide, temperatures will plunge and snow will begin falling as soon as we step off the plane.)
This will be my last post for this trip, but I wanted to say a little more about Myanmar. A reader took issue with my perceptions of the country saying, basically, that I was missing the trees for the forest, or something like that. (See Comments under the previous post.) Evidently I had been deceived by Myanmar’s exceptionally friendly and vibrant people, and had overlooked the fact that they are oppressed by a ruthless military regime.
The crux of the controversy is the Myanmar government’s human rights violations which, frankly, are undeniable and indefensible.
The government continues to use forced labor to at least some degree, sometimes for public projects such as road building, sometimes for personal projects for the military elite, if what we were told in Myanmar is accurate. However the use of forced labor has declined in the last decade, according to one thing we read. We saw plenty of road building going on, but nothing that was necessarily forced labor. Road building in underdeveloped countries is backbreaking and labor intensive. We’ve seen similar road crews in Guatemala. But that doesn’t mean it is forced labor. Of course, it doesn’t mean it isn’t either. But one shouldn’t jump to conclusions based on what one sees out a bus window.
The government is authoritarian and paranoid and deals with criticism and threat harshly. Freedom of speech is restricted (though, unlike Lao and many other countries, freedom of religion is not). It was interesting to discover there were certain websites we could not access. Every once in a while instead of a page loading, a bright red “access denied” banner would appear. Of course, the fact that there is internet access at all is a remarkable thing in an authoritarian state. Access is not denied, just managed. Not always successfully, by the way. A lot of the public internet cafes we went to used proxy servers which circumvented the government attempts to censor content. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And the people of Myanmar have plenty of will.
Old school restrictions on speech are more successful. The government is almost universally unpopular, as far as we could tell, but people are careful about what they say, and to whom. People are wary of spies who will report their comments to the authorities, resulting in arrest and imprisonment. The guidebooks caution travelers against bringing up political subjects because it might create trouble. However a number of people who could speak English brought up the situation to us themselves. One young man, a guide we had hired to show us around, told us about a friend of his who was imprisoned after admitting to a spy that he was active in the resistance movement. I asked him whether he was worried about talking to us, but he said he figured no one else around us would understand what we were saying. A number of other times people would just drop quiet comments, causing us to perk up our ears. If what we heard is just the tip of the iceberg, then the government has every right to be paranoid.
Another serious issue is how the government deals with the insurgencies in the tribal areas. According to reports it has been, shall we say, a little heavy handed. A lot of people killed. But insurgencies all over the world are messy like that. Just before we left we saw on TV a BBC interview with a general of the Kachin forces (one of the tribal groups) who boasted that the Kachin army is gaining new recruits every day, and that they are preparing to fight the government forces. In the north we were told something similar about the Shan army. These are just two of several insurgent groups fighting for independence. Again, if the government feels threatened, that is because it is.
The tribal insurgencies are nothing new. When the British annexed Burma to it’s Indian holdings in the late 1800s it did little to administer the remote tribal areas. They remained apart from central Burma. When Burma gained it’s independence from the British in 1948 the tribal areas still didn’t want to become a part of the country, and that desire has persisted, at times resulting in open warfare. Resistance from rebel groups were partially responsible for the military takeover of the government, first in 1958, then again in 1962, with a brief elected government in between. (Actually, the first time was a voluntary “handover” from the civilian government, in an attempt to gain stability.)
So, tribal insurgencies have been an issue since before the military government came to power, and continue to be an issue. There is no reason to think that issue would go away even if Myanmar became a democracy.
Those are more or less the facts. So where is the controversy? For travelers it is simply this: to go or not to go, that is, should travelers visit Myanmar? I think the only reason that question exists is because of one person–the charismatic, articulate and beautiful opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest (in her deteriorating family mansion) for most of the past 20 years. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and has been awarded several similar prizes. She speaks English and several other languages fluently. She lived and worked in New York, and was married to an Oxford professor who died in 1999. She still has two sons in the UK.
Did I mention she is beautiful? She is, but she is a lot more than just a pretty face. For starters, her father is a national hero, and a founder of the Burmese Army. (General Aung San was assassinated in 1947 when Aung San Suu Kyi was two years old.) Her mother was an ambassador to India and Nepal. She studied at Oxford and holds a Ph.D from the University of London. She led the opposition party in the 1990 election (the last one held) and in an upset victory her party won 82% of the vote. She should have become Prime Minister, but the military government overruled the results and put her under house arrest.
When Aung San Suu Kyi speaks people listen, and in 1995 she said tourists should boycott Burma because foreigners coming to the country was “tantamount to condoning the regime.”
A lot of travelers who like to go to places like Myanmar tend to be not just adventurous, but conscientious. I don’t think any traveler wants to condone or support Myanmar’s military regime. But is it as simple as to go or not to go? I don’t think so. Here’s why.
Myanmar has clearly been affected by its mostly self-imposed isolation. It is less developed than neighboring countries and, as I noted in the previous post, feels like it is 30 years behind. That is not all bad, mind you. There are no western chain stores or restaurants, and few products from international mega-corporations. Most brands we saw which were at all familiar were Asian. I think the only western brand we saw was Coke which, face it, is everywhere there is any kind of civilization. Resistance is futile.
I think objectively the government’s attempt to limit outside influences as the country developed following a century of British rule is understandable–up to a point. It is not the only government to do this. Islamic countries take certain measures to fight godless western influences. Even Canada rather feebly tries to fight “Americanization” by mandating a certain percentage of “Canadian Content” for all broadcasters.
But I don’t think that isolation and secrecy is in the best interest of the people of Myanmar or, for that matter the government. The interests of the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. For good or ill, people and places cannot opt out of the modern world and expect to thrive. The clearest example of that is North Korea.
The government has opened up the country quite a bit in the last few years, and has built a lot of hotels and resorts attractive to mostly high-end tourists. The cynical would say they are doing that to get more money to line their own pockets, which is probably at least partially right. But if that is all it is, then it is a risky strategy. The government has invested a lot of money in these projects, and tourism is very sensitive to any sort of bad PR. The government has every incentive to cast Myanmar in a positive light.
At the same time, independent, low-budget travelers are not particularly restricted. Sure, there are areas foreigners are not allowed to go, such as where there is insurgent activity. (Also areas of gemstone production, a big money maker for the country.) But for the most part we, and other travelers, had not problem going where we wanted, seeing what we wanted and talking to whom we wanted. We spent our money in shops and in the street stalls and mostly places that normal people patronized. Even if some of our money found its way into government hands, most of it went to regular people.
Yes, every guesthouse and bus company copied information from our passport, and there were occasional roadside checks of our documents (and those of the locals). But that kind of thing seems insidious only to armchair travelers. I’ve had my passport checked more often in Mexico. And if you are paranoid about a government tracking you, cut up your credit cards and driver’s license, close your bank accounts, and never sign anything official. By contrast Myanmar’s attempts to track travelers seem rather quaint.
So, tourists and travelers who come to Myanmar spend money, and bring information and ideas. Equally important most, if not all, return with an increased understanding of the country and the people. To be sure it is a mixed blessing for Myanmar, but on the whole I think it is positive thing.
What about those who choose to boycott Myanmar? For some it is a principled, if misguided, stance. They travel all around the world, including Cuba, China and the Islamic theocracies, which have political prisoners and other similar and perhaps more serious human rights problems. But because Aung San Suu Kyi said don’t come to Burma, they don’t come. For most people who champion the boycott, I suspect they don’t go anywhere anyway, and any position they have is simply posturing.
If the boycott benefits anyone I think it is the political opponents of the military regime, many of whom are outside of the country. Part of a famous quote from Aung San Suu Kyi is that “Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it.” I think a corollary to that would be that a desire for power corrupts those who don’t have it. As I noted above, and in my previous post, democracy will not solve all of Myanmar’s problems. If the minorities, who inhabit some of the country’s richest areas of teak and gemstones want independence, and remain willing to fight for it, how will a democratic government respond?
The area that is now Myanmar has a complex and turbulent history, going back centuries. The current situation will take it’s place in that history sooner or later. Elections are scheduled for later this year. The government did a bad job of rigging the last one, 30 years ago and had to overturn the results. It will be interesting to see what happens in this one.
Will anything change? As we were leaving one place someone said to us “Maybe things will be different when you come back. Things will change, if not this election, then maybe the next one.” We hope to come back and see whether he was right.