“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Myanmar: To go or not to go?


'The Dirty List' was published this week with a list of companies that have relations with the Myanmar junta government. It's an interesting assortment of companies, large and small, predictably with many from China and Thailand, but other big companies as well. While I don't really want to comment on companies and corporations going to Myanmar, other than to say that they are certainly in many other disreputable places without receiving criticism. Practices of corporations may not necessarily be good in their home country, and may well be very good in their host country and it is not good to generalize them all.

One interesting criticism that Myanmar travellers often receive is that they should not travel there because travelling there is helping the Myanmar junta. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is one advocate of this argument.

First of all, I honestly believe that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for so long that she may not necessarily be the best expert on matters in her own country, and she is certainly restricted in seeing the full picture by her advisors and the government.

Secondly, I think the advice not to travel is very limited. I think that needs clarification. I wholeheartedly agree that the large tour agencies that offer package tours where the tourists see nothing but their tour bus and 5 star hotels (which are very government influenced) are not advisable. However, I truly think that cutting a country off from foreign witnesses allows the problems to prevail. Independent travelers are a necessity in a place like Myanmar. Getting to the out of the way places means that people are seeing and witnessing and contributing in ways that get directly to the people.

I lived in Myanmar for three years as a teacher, so all those axes that should fall, will. But education, regardless of whether it is the poorest villager or the richest businessman's son is about awareness, and if we are to ensure that future generations of Myanmar leaders are not the corrupt madmen of the present day, then we need to make them aware, not only of their own country, but of the world, and human nature, and people and compassion.

I would never want to sanction the Myanmar government in any way. However, the situation is far more complex than the black and white that foreign groups often portray it. Many of the so-called "government-owned" properties are in fact owned simply by rich Asian businessmen who may have made deals with the government for permission (and this is done everywhere). That doesn't make me any more willing to put money in their pockets, but it does affect the overall issues. Yes, the people of Myanmar are some of the poorest and most needy in the world, but politicians will be politicians wherever they are, and corruption exists in most places, so it will never be eradicated. What areas can we improve on and affect? Health, education. The UN chooses to have a presence in Myanmar to aid the people, and we can support the people through them. Yes, the Myanmar government charges ridiculous prices of foreigners for its sights, but so do many places in the world. Yes, there are fees and charges hidden into many costs in Myanmar, but for just as many fees you pay to the government, you are at the same time contributing to a real person's need to make a living and support his/her family.

I have felt sad when friends or associates of mine have chosen not to visit Myanmar for fear of aiding the government. Every one of them would have been independent traveller, and would have maintained their contributions to the junta's pockets at a minimum. Thankfully, very few people that I know would come on a package tour, and I recommend all those that are considering that to look elsewhere for such pursuits. It is a truly beautiful country with a long-suffering, gentle, welcoming, friendly Buddhist populace. I cannot recommend experiencing a trip there, and meeting and helping those people that you can, any higher.

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