I write these words from the picturesque shores of Inle Lake in Myanmar. And while I am writing this, there is an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya minority happening a few hundred kilometers from here. After reading several times that it was indefensible to travel to Myanmar at the moment, I would like to take a moment and give you my reasoning for still visiting and help you answer the question: Is it ok to travel to countries whose governments commit human rights violations?
Many people didn’t know much about Myanmar until at the end of last year, and over this summer more and more reports reached the media about the plight of the Rohingya, a large ethnic minority group on the Northern coast of the country. Even though there is evidence that they have been living in Myanmar für more than a thousand years, the Myanmar government refuses to acknowledge the Rohingya as citizens (which means they can’t vote, most don’t have any ID, and they cannot get an education or better-paying jobs). For about a year now, the Myanmar army has been running a thinly veiled campaign of terror against the Rohingya trying to drive them out of Myanmar into neighboring Bangladesh. Al Jazeera did, in my opinion, an excellent summary of the situation that primarily focuses on facts. You can read the article here.
The argument against travel to countries like Myanmar committing human rights violations is usually quickly made:
By traveling there you are supporting the government of these countries. Your money for visa, tourist tax, tours, entrance fees, etc. finances the ethnic cleansing.
While it is hard to deny this notion, it is also true that this money finances infrastructure, health, and education in the country.
I have always traveled by the principle “A population is not their government.” Hence, a community should not suffer because of their government’s cruel actions.
So if it is not as simple as to say my travel is giving money to a government committing crimes against humanity I have to ask more questions:
Myanmar’s tourism is a relatively small sector. The military is mainly financed by exporting natural gas, stones, and agricultural products. Even if any and all tourists stayed away, it wouldn’t stop the burning, raping and killing. Not going would merely be a symbolic gesture doing more to calm my conscience than to help a single Rohingya.
Myanmar’s population is not wealthy. The minimum wage in the capital Yangon, is roughly $60/month, with people outside the capital often earning even less. So my money as a traveler can support average families when I stay at small hotels and guesthouses, eat locally, shop in the markets, and hire local transport.
Furthermore, my interest in historical sites such as Bagan or the royal capitals of Mandalay can also help preserve our all World heritage.
Finally, within the country, the media is controlled by the government. Their storyline is simple: the Rohingya attacked the military, and the military is merely defending itself. I can also be in the country as an ambassador of my nation and wider information than what the government allows. While I cannot missionize the people of Myanmar in the facts I’ve seen or in my beliefs in the treatment of fellow humans, I can disagree in conversations and utter my opinions where appropriate; I can sow seeds of doubt in the official government line.
After looking at the answers to these three questions, I have concluded that traveling to Myanmar is not an indefensible act. And while I would not encourage just anyone to drop any other destination and come to Myanmar, I would say that travelers who had planned to come to the country anyways should not put their plans on hold and rather take the opportunity to look at how they can use their travels for good.
Don’t go for the easy answer that you’ve read on social media when asking yourself whether traveling somewhere is ok or not. Ask yourself all of the above questions I have asked myself:
You might come up with different answers for your destination than I have in regards to Myanmar. But at least you have made a decision and haven’t had the decision made for you.
Money makes the World go round. So if you want to do little harm or even good in your travels look at where you spend your money – regardless of the government of your chosen destination.
I like to support local people by staying at their accommodations, booking their driving services, and eating the food served at the street corners.
I try to avoid buying from children, shopping Nestle’s bottled water, and booking chain hotels.
To weigh in on any issue, you have to know about the issue. So read up, educate yourself, and not only to support your existing views. Try to read up on different sides of any argument. You don’t have to agree with everything being said but if you understand where your opponents stand you can find solutions. In the case of Myanmar, it helps to understand that there is a large social and economic fear that feeds resentment against the Rohingya minority and goes back to the British colonial rule of the country (then called Burma). Tackling these issues on a global stage might help to eventually resolve the crisis at hand.
If you have learned about an issue, do not go on a mission to teach your findings to everyone. Instead, disseminate facts and information and let people come to their own conclusions.
When you visit a different country, you are a guest in that country. Where you come from is not better than where you visit. It is different. That is why you should listen to locals and respect their traditions and rules. Feel free to make suggestions for changes, explain why you would do things differently. But don’t feel entitled to having them implemented.
At the same time, don’t “Go local” as a fashion statement without an understanding of clothing and decoration. Ask yourself whether that hairdo (looking at you white ladies with dreads), that dress, that bindi is appropriate to be worn as fashion, or whether there are spiritual, religious, or other rules to wearing them. That is true, even if you can buy the style in local markets.
And while we’re at it: Put some clothes on when you visit a conservative religious site!
“Put your money where your mouth is” can also be said beyond spending wisely (& locally). Support organizations that not only fight for the survival of people in need but also support them in (re)starting their lives.
There are thousands of places where you can help – put some effort into finding them.
If you don’t have money to give, you can lend your voice and your time. But make sure you read up on effects of your volunteering and don’t just follow your first instinct (yes, I am talking about orphanage and animal sanctuary voluntourism).
Here are a few global places where you can support the Rohingya directly, learn about their situation and who is currently helping them.
Last, not least you can change the destinations you travel by exercising your rights as a citizen of your home country because whether and how you vote in your own country can influence the lives of people across the globe. The diplomatic arsenal should never be underestimated. So when you feel sorry for the situation of citizens elsewhere make sure you are not squandering your own rights out of complacency as that is simply a slap in the face of anyone not enjoying these rights. Personally, as a German, I enjoy rights such as the right to a free vote, education, free speech, economic freedom, freedom to travel. And I intend to use every single one of them.
I hope this post not only shed some light onto why I have decided to travel to Myanmar but also helps you to be more conscious of your travels and the influence you can exert beyond a boycott of a destination.
As someone who wrote about why we shouldn’t go, I respect your points and think you raise good questions. I am just curious though…you said “I can sow seeds of doubt in the official government line”. I think this is much easier said than done as a tourist. Can you give me an example how you accomplished this? Also regarding the cultural heritage sites, usually I would completely agree, but if you look into that 25,000 kyat admission fee for Bagan’s archaeological site, it mostly goes to the government. And although tourism currently may be a small percent of GDP, predictions are that it is going to increase exponentially in next ten years.
I get what you are saying regarding “what happens by not traveling”. But I would argue that going there, while helping a few locals here and there, actually helps maintain the status quo but giving the government the green light to continue their current course of action. I agree that if someone has already planned their trip, yes they should still go, but with all the caveats you speak of regarding where to spend money. Sorry for long comment!!!