Ruled by the world’s last military junta, Burma is shunned by both governments and tourists. Yet its people are crying out for contact. So what’s the ethical traveller to do?
Currently Burma is not one of the world’s
top 10 travel destinations
but the neighboring nation of
Thailand is frequently visited. This gives hope that if Burma’s political and governmental issues can be cleaned up that it may one day be a destination for tourists.
On the boat to Mandalay the same thoughts kept turning in my mind. The red orb of a full moon appeared, casting streaks of gold across the placid water of the Irrawaddy river, but even this beauty failed to displace the questions that haunted our two-week stay earlier this month. Why were we in Burma? Was our trip giving comfort to the country’s military dictatorship, by common consent one of the world’s worst regimes?
Burma never has been a popular destination, and after the bloody suppression of the monks’ protests in September 2007 and the government’s delay in helping hundreds of thousands who lost everything in Cyclone Nargis the following May, the tourist trickle almost dried up. Only 47,161 people came from Europe last year, mainly from France and Germany, making Burma the country least visited by British people anywhere in Asia (with the exception of North Korea).
So was our party of visitors wrong to buck the trend? Not if you go by the number of people who eagerly approached us to practise their English and, after a tentative start, wanted to say what they thought of their rulers. “They’re mad,” one driver told us as he steered his creaking banger past a crush of Chinese bicycles and motorbikes, the commonest form of transport on Burma’s rutted roads.
In decades of reporting I have generally stuck to journalism’s rule number one: don’t quote taxi drivers. But in a few places (Manhattan, Havana, and now Burma) you meet such a variety of characters forced to earn a living behind the wheel that their opinions offer a broad range of views. This driver had trained as a computer engineer before serving in a Burmese embassy in a western country. “Life is not improving here,” he said. “Most people don’t like the government. We have no legislative body. We have no democracy.” (Apologies for breaking journalism’s rule number two: don’t use anonymous quotes if they are pejorative. In Burma, critical sources deserve protection.)
Another driver was making political comments within five minutes of our hiring him from Rangoon airport into town. Asked if it was our first trip to Burma, I said yes, and then added, “I see you call it Burma.” “Burma good name, Myanmar new name,” he replied mischievously. When we inquired what the attractive gardens were behind locked gates on the left, “That was the university. Now closed,” he commented. “Because of the demonstrations, when we had demonstrations. They moved all the universities out of Rangoon. Now it’s quiet,” he added, before smiling sarcastically: “Good idea.”
An intelligence officer, I wondered fleetingly, working at the airport to test arriving foreigners? If so, he wasn’t much of an expert, since his only question, apart from whether it was our first trip, was where we came from. The one good thing he found to say of the regime was that it had allowed English to be taught again in primary schools. “For a time they stopped it. The army doesn’t like English but now it’s OK again.” That certainly seemed to be true. Rangoon’s main shopping street is brimming with cramped bookshops, full of English grammar and vocabulary manuals. Similar titles were laid out on the pavements alongside food stalls and fruit-drink stands.
In contrast to Thailand, where linguistic communication is a struggle and faces in public transport are blank and unwelcoming, Burmese friendliness is a delight. Burma is multi-ethnic and, until the military coup of 1962, was open to the world. For decades its elite spoke good English and even today most people in Rangoon and Mandalay have a smattering. Keenness for contact with foreigners is strong, for its own sake and as resistance to enforced isolation.
Of course, some friendliness is commercially driven. Vendors with bright smiles and the chat-up line “Where are you from?” can turn into leeches at some sites. But genuine curiosity is more common. In the hour before sunset, when tourists routinely climb the thousand or more steps to Mandalay Hill, young monks emerge to engage in conversation, especially delighted to meet someone who speaks “real English”.
The regime itself uses English for a few publications. Who buys them is hard to say, except perhaps the diplomatic community. They offer a dreary diet of ministerial visits to new hydroelectric projects, with the one benefit of reminding you that Burma is the last country in the world ruled by a military junta: the minister for information is a brigadier-general; the minister for construction is a major-general. More bizarrely, so too is the minister for culture.
One copy of the government-owned newspaper New Light of Myanmar that I picked up showed the ministers of culture of Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Vietnam at a recent conference. In full military dress and medals, Burma’s minister looked eccentric beside his three conventionally suited counterparts.
The junta wants to shed its anachronistic image. Elections announced for this year are intended to give the regime a civilian face, of a sort anyway. The new constitution provides for a presidential system with 14 regional governments. Sizeable blocks of seats will be reserved for the army, and the commander-in-chief will have extraordinary powers. Aung San Suu Kyi, the icon of the opposition National League for Democracy – which won the last elections in 1990 but was prevented from taking office – is of course still under house arrest. But even if she were not, this new constitution bars her from standing for president. The poll will be tightly controlled in other ways and opposition groups are unlikely to have much room to campaign, although election regulations have not yet been finalised.
While people’s willingness to give foreigners their opinions was the biggest surprise of our trip, the amount of access people have to dissenting views also ran counter to our preconceived picture. The BBC’s Burmese radio service is widely heard. An Oslo-based exile TV station, the Democratic Voice of Burma, can be picked up by satellites that are easily available. Rangoon and Mandalay have numerous internet cafes, which are invariably full. When I clicked on the BBC website in Burmese it came up promptly.
To resist this, the regime makes the feeblest of propaganda efforts. For a flavour, take the instructions that appear under the bizarre headline The People’s Desire in newspapers and on occasional roadside hoardings: 1. Oppose those relying on External Elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views; 2. Oppose those trying to jeopardise the stability of the state and national progress; 3. Oppose foreign nations interfering in the internal affairs of the state; 4. Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.
The fourth of these points encapsulates the junta’s preferred strategy for handling criticism – repression. The country has around 2,100 political prisoners, including many of the monks who led the 2007 street protests from Rangoon’s majestic Shwedagon Pagoda. Dozens were shot and killed during those protests, and public assembly is still severely restricted. The authorities are so determined to prevent crowds gathering that they have even fenced off a corner of the vast concourse, full of minor temples and Buddha statues, that surrounds the Shwedagon’s golden stupa in Rangoon. This corner contains a monument to student demonstrators killed by the British in 1920, and the regime wants no parallels drawn or flowers placed in memory of more recent deaths.
Britain’s long occupation
For British visitors, the monument is a useful reminder of Britain’s long occupation of Burma, the most graphic account of which can be found in George Orwell’s Burmese Days, a fictionalised memoir of the odious colleagues he worked with as an imperial policeman in northern Burma in the 1920s. The book is certainly an essential text if you want to understand the racism, brutality and violence which the British empire entailed, and another key text for any visitor to Burma is Amitav Ghosh’s epic, The Glass Palace, covering three generations of two Burmese and Indian families. One of its most powerful sections covers the dilemma confronting Burmese nationalists during the second world war – whether to support the Japanese against the British Raj, or defend the very empire they had long sought to overthrow. The most prominent leader to face this agonising choice was Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, who first joined the Japanese but came back to the British side.
One morning in Rangoon we tracked down his house, a rambling wooden building with delicately carved gables on a hillock in a northern suburb. It has long been closed to Burmese but, according to the guidebooks, foreigners could wander in and admire family photographs, some showing the young Aung San Suu Kyi. Not any more. “Only on 19 July,” a gardener told us through the locked railings. That is the anniversary of the day Aung San, by then Burma’s prime minister, was murdered by a political rival on the eve of independence.
Where there are faint signs of hope for Burma is in the aid field. Thanks to an international boycott, Burma receives less help than any other country in the world. This is one reason for the catastrophic rates of infant mortality and child malnutrition. But in recent months western governments have started to think again, since the denial of assistance hits only Burma’s poorest. Foreign donors are stepping up development aid on top of the emergency grants supplied after Cyclone Nargis, which left an estimated 140,000 dead or missing.
The junta’s initial reaction to the cyclone was to refuse international help. It carried on with a referendum on the new constitution, as though Nargis had not happened. This further blackened its image. But under pressure from governments in the Association of South-Eastern Asian Nations (Asean), the junta changed its line and international aid agency officials now say the regime has been working well with the UN and Asean in agreeing programmes, priorities and relief projects, and allowing donor money to reach people. Foreign aid workers get permits to enter the affected areas in the Irrawaddy delta. Big western non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam and Save the Children are well-established in Burma, with a network of local staff.
As tourists, we were allowed to spend a day in Twante, one cyclone-affected area about 20 miles out of Rangoon. A driver whom we found independently invited us home to lunch where his wife and other women relatives were feeding two dozen monks, a gesture the family makes about twice a year, he said. The temples played a key role in collecting clothes, food and money for cyclone victims. Private companies funded the rebuilding of many houses and schools.
After the disaster, Burmese students and other young people poured into the area to help. Some were so moved that they later set up aid projects and small NGOs without government obstruction, we were told. As a result, according to a western aid worker who travels regularly to Burma, Cyclone Nargis has resulted in a broadening of independent civil society activity.
Suspend travel bans
Optimists argue that the institutional changes enshrined in the new constitution will also enlarge the space for progress. There may be a clampdown in advance of the poll, one observer said, but the fact that Burma will have legislative bodies at national and local levels for the first time in more than a generation gives scope for wider debate. The International Crisis Group, which often reflects the views of the liberal wing of the western diplomatic elite, takes a similar line. “Even assuming that the intention of the regime is to consolidate military rule rather than begin a transition away from it, such processes often lead in unexpected directions,” it wrote in an analysis of the pre-election scene.
The group suggests western governments suspend their travel bans on junta members, resume normal contact and push the message that political prisoners must be released and election campaigning be allowed to go ahead freely. The Obama administration has also announced a shift in US policy on Burma towards engagement rather than isolation, though without specifying any concrete steps.
According to articles on the online opposition website Irrawaddy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, is involved in a tough internal debate over whether to take part in the elections. It might back certain candidates even if, as is assumed, it is barred from competing in its own right. Taking part would allow the party’s supporters to revive their networks and contacts.
Meanwhile, the western investment boycott has left the field open to Chinese companies. They are especially visible in Mandalay, which has a large mall called the Great Wall Shopping Centre. “People respect the Chinese – they think they’re cleverer than Burmese,” said a young man who studied briefly in another Asean country. “They don’t like Indians because Indians were the main agents of the British occupation. But the Chinese are taking over. They’re close to the regime. Each side helps the other. It’s like a mafia,” he added.
Back, then, to the nagging question: should we have toured a country with so bad a regime and such little prospect of improvement? This young man had no doubt. “Bring in tourists who can spread the word from the outside world and also tell people in their own countries about Burma,” he said.
In Britain, the Burma Campaign UK criticises tourism and investment and publishes a “dirty list” of firms that do business with Burma. This includes travel companies as well as the Lonely Planet guidebooks. The campaign’s website contains a December 2002 quote from Aung San Suu Kyi: “We have not yet come to the point where we encourage people to come to Burma as tourists.”
Two other exile lobbies, Voices for Burma and Free Burma Coalition, which used to support a tourism boycott now take the opposite view. Voices for Burma also enlists Aung San Suu Kyi, though its sourcing is flimsy. Its website says: “According to a close acquaintance, not yet identified but reportedly from her party, the National League of Democracy, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been quoted as saying that travel to her country can now be encouraged, provided arrangements are made through private organisations. She now believes that tourism might be beneficial, should the result of the visit draw attention to the oppression of the people by the military junta.”
While favouring engagement, Voices for Burma and the Free Burma Coalition urge tourists to do as much as possible to help private Burmese citizens and not put money in the government’s pocket, and in fact it is possible to do so now as a tourist. Some fees, such as the entrance ticket for the ruined city of Bagan, the visa charge and airport departure tax, cannot be escaped. But in 2003 the government dropped the requirement that every tourist change $200 at an official exchange place. Instead of going on a package or using a UK- or Bangkok-based tour company that inevitably has contacts with the Burmese government, visitors can travel on their own by picking one of the many family-owned Burmese travel agents that work from tiny offices in Rangoon. You make your arrangements either on the spot or by email in advance. There are also numerous family-owned guesthouses and restaurants and thousands of private souvenir-makers and sellers. Thanks to the web, details of how to plan your trip are readily available.
The big decision is whether to go at all. No one should imagine tourism is automatically going to make Burma a better place. But can anyone credibly argue the tourism boycott has made it better either?