Maybe visit Burma. Definitely take a stance.
Two years, two positions: In 1999, Aung San Suu Kyi said: “Burma will be here for many years, so visit us later. Visiting now is tantamount to condoning the regime.” Eleven years later, U Win Tin, on the same issue: “We want people to come to Burma, not to help the junta, but to help the people by understanding the situation: political, economic, moral – everything.”
Tourism to Burma is one of the core questions of how to deal with the regime and with the country that’s in its grip. This is not only because tourism is considered one form of foreign investments. It also reflects the commitment of the global public.
A reply is not easy since the possibility to encourage the locals, to raise awareness about the situation inside the country and to spread the wealth to the people is closely connected to foreigners being inside the country. And still: It is not less outrageous than foreign investors helping the regime to cover up its human rights abuses when tourists are complacent or even despise the locals.
I see it as something positive that the discussion has moved from a yes-no-question towards an inquiry on how to do it right. Tourism can be beneficial, but for example the impact on the environment must be examined, as the NLD has recently reiterated. There is certainly a tangible risk that any call for a careful engagement will be misused by powerful stakeholders. The more important it is to maintain a critical and meaningful discussion.
Apart from the fundamental question how much tourism to Burma would be tolerable even for a best case scenario, the present situation apparently makes every traveler complicit how ever responsibly the trip is done. This starts at the very moment when you enter the country or when you use a hotel, beach or restaurant.
For responsible tourists who have done their homework, Burma is an uneasy road to travel: “Perhaps the most overwhelming aspect of travel in Burma is being in a country that is ruled by fear.” While I certainly don’t wish any traveler to share that fear, I definitely want them to notice it – behind the famous Burmese smiles, in the tranquility of the pagodas and beyond the borders to the tourist no-go areas.
If travelers go they by all means should do it responsibly. I am not at the point where I would urge anyone to go and explore Burma. I am too scared of ruthless mass tour operators jumping in. But I also see a chance in the right people going and helping. Travelers certainly don’t help by praising luxurious hotels, cheap food and servile locals, or by showing off with amazing photos.
Traveling to Burma is a deeply political activity. As traveler to Burma you simply cannot avoid to take a stance. Travelers should always make clear, which stance that is. If they fail to do so, they might as well add their voice to the wrong side.
PS: For more information visit www.ecoburma.com