WIT: Should You Boycott Myanmar?

If you’re considering a Myanmar boycott, it might be worth reading on. This post hopes to give you enough information to decide whether or not you should boycott Myanmar.

First thing first: WITRAG travel absolutely denounce the abhorrent crimes being committed against the Rohingya people by the Burmese government. Yes – still being committed. Like many back home we read about the murder, gangrape, and violent displacement of roughly 600,000 people from their home in Rakhine state.

There are many different versions of the reason for the climax of violence in Myanmar. That being said, the Burmese military is undeniably guilty of torching agricultural villages and forcefully moving a body of people from their home for religious reasons.

If you don’t want to read in to the matter any further and want a quick answer about a Myanmar boycott then here it is: Myanmar is still an unforgettable, beautiful and safe country to travel around. If you travel to Myanmar and stick to popular locations frequented by other travellers then you are very, very unlikely to encounter any problems.

The Current Trouble

The majority of the current ‘trouble’ is taking place in regions which have very strict border control and are generally extremely difficult to reach. With large parts of Myanmar still off-limits to travellers, we feel that the only way you will find yourself in trouble is if you are incredibly determined to find it.

The more delicate issue to consider is a moral one. Whether you like it or not, a significant percentage of the money you spend in Burma will be going directly to old military dictators and generals. Unfortunately, they still have a grip on the country. In many respects, spending money in Myanmar is feeding the problem. There is no getting away from this one and it is impossible to avoid while there.

We completely respect that other travellers will choose to boycott Myanmar and would encourage you to do your research before making your own decision. If you would like to know more about our experience, whether you should boycott Myanmar or simply want to know more about our understanding of the ‘trouble’, then please read on.

DISCLAIMER WITRAG travel, like many backpackers, understand only some of the delicate nature of this country and its current political situation. We are no political experts, nor are we seasoned war correspondents and therefore our knowledge is in places restricted. We would like to apologise if our understanding is not completely accurate and hope not to offend anybody with what we have written. Our post is designed only to show that Burma is still safe for backpackers, and to help other travellers weigh up the consequences of visiting.

Old Guard

Governmental constitution states that 25% of the seats in parliament must be occupied by the Burmese military. This gives the military a huge presence in government and allows them to block change as they see fit. This military also happens to operate completely independently of the Government. Their hidden and secretive departments, buried in the complex structure of government in Burma, still have a firm grip on the country.

One of the military-controlled departments concerns tax and disputes. Corruption is rife. The de facto minister of the General Administration Department (GAD) controls civil service. This ensures that the military continue to have a significant governmental role, causing confusion and chaos throughout parliament.

At the majority of the tourist attractions and sites in Burma, you will be forced to pay a tax ‘donation’. Like it or not, this tax is going straight to the military. Buying a beer? They own that too. This being the case, you will have to carefully consider whether you can justify visiting Burma on a moral basis. Is your visit worth the inevitable contributions you’ll be making to the all-powerful Burmese military? Should you boycott Myanmar?

Divided Nation

While the ‘trouble’ in Rakhine state rightly makes the front pages, sadly there are other states in Burma whose local ‘guerrilla’ armies are also fighting bloody battles with the Burmese military. Burma is a hugely diverse country with a population of roughly 80 million people.

It’s estimated that there are over two hundred local languages spoken among varying ethnic communities. Regional cultures, histories and traditions have been shaped by close links with China, Laos, Thailand and Bangladesh. While it may be politically united under the title of Myanmar, many still proudly wear their local flag and support their local fight against the Burmese army.

Pahtodawgyi Pagoda showing its cracks in Mingun, Myanmar
Cracks through the structure of Pahtodawgyi Pagoda

In our time there we didn’t get to visit Rakhine or Chin state. We travelled to Hpa-an (Kayin) and Hsipaw (Shan) state.

Particularly in the Shan state, the presence of the local guerrilla army is noticeable. We crossed their checkpoints twice and our guide had to change our trekking route because we were instructed to by them. Only earlier this year, an entire village close to Pan Kam was ringfenced by the Burmese military and brutally cut-off from the rest of the state. We were told of a Burmese military which is trying to kill off age-old traditions and expel local languages, even local dress.

As tourists we didn’t get the chance to fully explore any of the conflicts. Little is known about the guerrilla armies, but WITRAG Travel is fully that there are always two sides to every story. That being said, some of the impositions and actions of the Burmese army seemed unnecessarily aggressive against harmless civilians. This story is not a new one for Burma, and tragically seems set to continue for some time.

About the Rohingya Population

The Rohingya people have been brutalized by the Burmese government for decades. Often seen as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, they have been denied citizenship and even excluded from national census. Basic human rights, aid and funding have consistently been denied to Muslim people in the Rakhine state.

What Happened…?

Rohingya guerrilla militants attacked Burmese police in August 2017, killing officers and destroying local posts. Tensions which had been near breaking point for centuries finally erupted, and local buddhist mobs retaliated. The Burmese military added brutal force to the attack and many of the Rohingya people fled. Crops were destroyed, villages were burned and the only safe escape was north towards Bangladesh. It is estimated that over 6,000 men, women and children were killed. The vast majority of these people were innocent civilians.

Children waving in a village in Shan State, Myanmar
Children in a village near Pan Kam which was surrounded by the Burmese military and cut-off from the rest of the state

What Now?

The majority of the Rohingya were forced to flee in to neighbouring Bangladesh, which has a majority Muslim population. Bangladesh, however, is not without its own difficulties. This is one of the poorest countries in the world, one of the most densely populated and one which has its own struggling infrastructure punished regularly by brutal cyclones and widespread flooding.

Picture over half a million refugees rushing over the border looking for a new home. Many of the rape victims, struggling for space in crammed refugee camps, have recently given birth and added even further pressure to facilities. Those who had been allowed passports were granted Burmese passports; Burmese counts as their official language.

The land owned and farmed by those now displaced was owned and farmed by their fathers, their grandfathers, their great-grandfathers. The Burmese government now claim this land never belonged to them and that they have no place in the country.

Our Role as Tourists

News of the atrocities against the Rohingya people made news stations worldwide. Several outlets described the violence as ethnic cleansing in all but name. The news appeared on our screens, told of the disgraceful displacements in a politically troubled country, and then disappeared again, shuffling aside for the next gripping headline.

Meanwhile, the trouble in Burma has continued. In September 2018 two Burmese journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo who reported on the massacre of the Rohingya, were sentenced to seven-year prison sentences. They were charged with espionage and mis-using confidential documents, charges which have been criticised as highly suspect.

This is a country still striving for democracy, where freedom of speech hasn’t fully materialised. If you decide that Myanmar is a place you should be visiting, you can help to share details about what is happening in Burma. Boycott Myanmar and you can’t.

Girl watching balloons on Bagan sunrise, Myanmar
Emma takes in a beautiful Bagan sunrise

By visiting Burma you’ll enhance your understanding of the ‘trouble’ and learn about the complex situation the country finds itself in. By speaking to family and friends, or perhaps detailing your findings to online followers you’ll keep the world involved with the current situation.

You’ll be able to spread information about the suffering. You’ll help to raise awareness for those who are suffering, promote the groups that are trying to create positive change and help diminish any mis-truths which are circulated. Nobody’s going to become a travel journalist overnight, but we surely have a part to play.

Why We Won’t Recommend a Myanmar Boycott

Our main reason for visiting Burma was to visit a country which has only recently opened its doors to the world. We heard bitter complaints from other travellers about neighbouring countries selling their souls to tourism while Burma remained traditional, authentic and genuine. We wanted to see a country rubbing the sleep from its eyes after a long slumber; one which was not yet overrun by tourists and still gave you the opportunity to experience local life.

It helps, also, that Burma is an extremely beautiful and fascinating country. Miles of coastline, jagged limestone mountain ranges, countless temples and absorbing ethnic traditions make it a country which could satisfy any visitor.

Days disappear exploring the endless and atmospheric ruins in Bagan, hot air balloons dotting the skyline ahead. Hpa-an draws you in with caves, waterfalls, mountains and hikes through jaw-dropping scenery in Hsipaw are as enticing as the meals mothers will cook for you in their family homes. And these are the ‘main’ tourist hotspots, though you’ll struggle to believe it. Get further off the beaten path and you’ll enjoy the temples of Mrauk-U and the reefs of the Myeik archipelago all to yourself.

We found that throughout the country the people are kind, open and want you to enjoy your stay. Local children wave and practice whatever English they know. The monks are engaging, interested and willing to answer questions you may have. The Burmese people were generally willing to help you enjoy your trip and happy to share tips with you.

Who Would A Boycott Hurt?

Like you we’ve read about warnings online, even some bloggers suggesting that there should be a full travel boycott of Myanmar, that backpackers should stop visiting Myanmar. But as you consider this, ask yourself ‘who would this affect most?’ Would a tourism drought destabilise the economy and force the government in to re-aligning its practices and powers? Certainly not.

The military departments benefit from all sorts of taxes and other corrupt affairs. The honest truth is that a Myanmar boycott is unlikely to change this. International relations may sour and there would be pressure from abroad, but let’s remember that Burma is a country which very recently lived with and survived a fourteen-year tourism boycott.

Old man smoking on train carriage in Myanmar
Some of the local people have seen it all

A tourism boycott in Myanmar would have a devastating effect on innocent civilians. As tourism has grown in the last 3-5 years, so have the number of businesses that rely on tourism. Many of these businesses are in rural areas, where modern ‘city’ jobs are not an option. Although the tourism infrastructure in Myanmar is low-key in comparison with its neighbours, there are still several hundred, perhaps thousands of families that would be affected by a boycott. These include hostel workers, tour guides, transport workers, restaurants, cafes and many more. Our opinion is that a boycott in Myanmar would barely register with the military-controlled government; it’s impact on the local people could be devastating.

Our Experience

While visiting Burma our intention was to speak to local people about the conflict in the Rakhine state and learn more about it. The truth is that we learnt much less than we had hoped to about Rakhine. Contrarily, we learnt about other tribes and ethnic people that were each of them battling the Burmese military, anxiously watching what happened in Rakhine.

In Yangon especially, we found that people would pretend to have never heard of Rakhine, to have no knowledge of what was happening there. Locals were often hesitant to discuss the subject, to the point where they outright refused to share information on how to get to Mrauk-U (a nearby town with ancient, beautiful temples and significantly less tourists).

As we travelled through the country we did however learn about other ethnic groups in the Kayin and Shan states. The people here were open and honest in talking about their beliefs, namely, that the Burmese military was attempting to destroy their identity forever and that they had to fight back. We hiked through guerrilla military posts, slept in guerrilla-controlled villages and even saw rebel army training at a make-do military camp. This left a lasting impression on us and spoke volumes about the lengths the locals would go to in order to protect their tradition, their heritage, and most importantly, to protect their families.

A local family eating during a visit at a local homestay in Pan Kam, Myanmar
A local family at a homestay in Pan Kam
Let’s Conclude

So should you be visiting Myanmar? And should you boycott Myanmar on a moral basis? This is something you will have to answer yourself. We would highly recommend any trip to Burma which doesn’t stray too far from the tourist trails. Use your brain, speak to locals and follow all the general safety precautions for backpacking and you’re likely to discover an invigorating and enthralling country before any potential trouble.

Have we got something horribly wrong? If you’ve already visited Myanmar please comment below and let us know what you thought, if you think we should all boycott Myanmar. As always, please feel free to also get in touch on Contact our page.

Further Reading

Simon Reeve – Burma (BBC TV Series)

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