The thorny questions about visiting Myanmar

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Throughout the various blog posts on the trip through the country, they have focused on the tourism angle and the sights a visitor can experience when going.  Of course, given the history of the country over the last 25 years, it’s not as simple as that, and for the final post on that particular visit, this will address it.

It is the easiest thing in the world to be oblivious to the reality of the country, to operate in the tourist bubble of nice hotels, good food and enjoying what it has to offer.  I cannot bring myself to criticise that approach, for visitors should never feel guilty for having more than in the place they choose to visit, and a country like this desperately needs the foreign revenue that is brought in through tourism anyway, but it is also true that many who do go will have a sense of discomfort and one of moral outrage about what has gone on there.

On my visit, I seemed to be followed around (the opposite is clearly the case!) by National League for Democracy supporters, culminating in the genuinely amazing experience of seeing Aung San Suu Kyi arrive into Thandwe airport to an extraordinary reception.  A local tried to explain to me who she was and why there was such excitement, only for me to stop him and say I knew exactly who this genuinely world famous person was and that I was as excited as anyone else – the huge disbelieving grin in response is a memory to treasure.

The elections are approaching rapidly, and the clear feeling of hope everywhere I went was more than apparent, but the attitudes to that are extremely parochial with limited awareness of the wider context – a direct result of the modern history of the country.  And that’s something that is apparent throughout a visit there.

Insisting on talking politics with people is pretty impolite in any case, and there’s always the concern that doing so could get someone into trouble, so treading carefully is the only option, but there is fascination there about the wider world and most conversations that did veer in this direction came about through them asking me about the United Kingdom rather than anything else.  But there were two occasions when asked a question where I paused, and suggested that it might be better to talk about that in private rather than in public.   I don’t want to give the impression that a visitor is constantly looking over his or her shoulder about this, because that isn’t the case, but there is an awareness that this is no democracy.

There’s no question it’s a freer country than it was, the rise of the smartphone – to the minority who can afford one – has massively improved the availability of information, while censorship is less harsh than it was.  This isn’t exactly difficult, and it’s to be hoped that in the months to come, that the elections are at least reasonably free and fair, and most importantly that the result is respected.  It’s going to be a long haul to address the fundamental imbalances and problems of the country no matter what the outcome, but an expression of democracy is something so many of us take for granted, so to see it in its rawest form is both humbling and leads to something of a sense of shame about our complacency concerning it.

The penurious nature of the country is perhaps more likely to strike the visitor, along with the striking contrast that the opulence of some of the landmarks provides.  When moving out of the most obvious tourist areas, where running water and electricity simply don’t exist, the gap is even more marked, as it is immediately beyond the limits of the main cities.  Equally, the chronic lack of education will tend to appall a visitor, given that the natural resources available mean this should never be as bad as it is in reality.  For that reason, many visitors will want to help out where they can, and this is more than possible.  There are endless local projects such as building libraries or supporting initiatives, and given the tourist guides are amongst the better paid and educated people, they will often be central to that and can assist if that’s what a visitor wishes to do.  But it must be emphasised that careful spending of the tourist dollars in themselves help – although that does require some degree of checking concerning choice of hotel or restaurant.

None of this is in any way essential, a visit there can be enjoyed on its own merits irrespective of anything else, but for me I wanted to ensure that the money I was spending did make the smallest of differences.  A little care and this can be achieved.  The one thing that doesn’t help anyone is to boycott the place, for that impoverishes people who often have little other means of income or opportunity.  Tourism can be a wonderful catalyst for improving the conditions in which the population live, it’s neither perfect nor is it unquestionably a good thing in all areas, but it can be, and the visitor can help purely by being careful about where their money goes.

There aren’t right or wrong answers in any of this, it’s a personal matter for anyone who goes.  But anyone who thinks a little more deeply can still find ways and means of attempting to make a small difference without directly interfering or protesting about injustice.  I don’t pretend to have all the answers, or to fully understand all the issues.  I just wanted to ensure I could look myself in the mirror in the morning.

Please go.  Please visit.  It’s an astonishing country, and you can help just by going.

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