The No-Travel Guide to Burma

Written by  Erin Grinnell June 22, 2009

Tourism in Burma is on the rise and it's not hard to see why—the land is diverse and beautiful and feels undiscovered. But there are serious ethical issues associated with travel to this country.

Tourism directly supports one of the most brutal military regimes in the world. A humanitarian provides an introduction to the debate, and a peek at the regions tourists aren't allowed to go.

Arriving in Rangoon, Burma's capital, is a strange experience. At first, the city seems a lot like many other Southeast Asian capitals: it's hot and humid, and full of men in khaki uniforms. But scratch below the surface and you start to see a strictly enforced order and calm.

The meticulous searches for electronics at the airport (smuggling a modem into the country carries a penalty of several years in prison) are a first clue. Others begin to emerge; the almost complete lack of internet access and email. A cursory glance at the nation's state-sanctioned newspaper reveals eerily biased coverage of the military regime.

I start to notice the frequent military checkpoints and blockades on the streets of Rangoon, officials checking the identification papers of innocent passers-by. Teachers and students make their way to school in uniform—pristine white shirts and green sarongs—while universities remain closed in an effort to discourage people from gathering to challenge the regime.

Today Burma is making attempts to open its doors to tourism. As a humanitarian worker I have come to the country to run a rural grants program near the border with Bangladesh. Being an outsider to the country is an eye opening experience—the country stands in such stark contrast to the social and political systems that we tend to take for granted. As a privileged foreigner you only begin to feel the weight of the dictatorship. It is hard to imagine what it would be like to live here and never be allowed to leave.

Burma was virtually closed to tourism until recently, making it one of few places largely unexplored by even the most hardcore travellers. Campaigns against travel to Burma, and the lack of western embassies, have also contributed to keeping the number of visitors down.

The military dictatorship is eager to encourage tourism, and tries hard to present an attractive image to the world.

Tourism is, however, on the rise. It is not hard to see why—the land is diverse and beautiful, and feels undiscovered. The fact that this mainly Buddhist country has been isolated from the outside world for so long, adds to its mystique. Travelling here one does not run into other westerners at every turn.

Western cultural influences here are relatively few. Most passers-by wear traditional Burmese dress, an ankle-length skirt-like wrap called a longyi. Male and female patterns are distinctive and dozens of stunning designs exist, unique to different ethnic groups throughout the country. Magical folding and tying can be used to create everything from a child's swing to a pair of sumo-like shorts. Market-goers can be seen folding the top of the longyi to form a pouch for a wallet, cigarettes or other small purchases.

The military dictatorship is eager to encourage tourism, and tries hard to present an attractive image to the world. They declared 1996 "Visit Myanmar Year." The country is promoted—not without justification—as an exotic travel destination, yet tight control is exerted over where visitors are allowed to go, and what they are allowed to see. Much of the country is off limits to foreigners.

It is entirely possible, probable in fact, that a traveller could spend time here without seeing anything like the abuses reported in western media. Even with full knowledge of the regime's appalling human rights record, on the surface here everything seems more or less fine.

***
Southeast Asian capitals are normally crowded and congested but Rangoon's boulevards are wide with a surprising amount of greenery. Cone-shaped pagodas of the 32-story-high, gold-plated Shwe Dagon Paya stand in memory of the Buddha, monuments of the Burmese Pagan empire which reigned from the 11th to the 13th century.

Interspersed is old Rangoon's colonial architecture, built when the country was administered as a province of British India. The chic Strand Hotel with its high ceilings, marble floors and teak and mahogany interior is a stunning reminder of Burma's colonial past.

As night falls over the capital, the intense tropical heat gives way to almost comfortable temperatures and the tree-lined boulevards come alive with roadside tea shops and candle-lit street stalls.

The teashop is central to Burmese social life. Sipping traditional rich black tea while seated at Lilliputian plastic tables and chairs is a daily and nightly ritual. To a foreigner, unaccustomed to the art of deciphering undercurrents of conversation, the street has a feel similar to the outdoor patios of European cafés, with a Southeast Asian flair. But it is said that a network of spies monitors the discussions here, watching for signs of dissent and conversations are guarded and hushed.

I lay my magazine on the table as I leave, not daring to expose the other patrons to danger by offering it to them, but hoping nonetheless that it will fall into the right hands. Though international radio is broadcast here, print media are much harder to come by. I walk past billboards that command the population to "Crush all internal and external destructive elements."

The writer, George Orwell worked as a civil servant in Burma in the 1920s. He predicted that of all the countries of the British Empire, Burma was most likely to prosper once it gained independence. At the time, it is unlikely that anyone would have disagreed; Burma was known as the "rice bowl" of Asia. Soon after Orwell made his prediction, the country was negotiating autonomy from Britain, with hopes of a promising future under a democratic government.

Since then, however, the political and economic landscapes have taken a nasty turn. Democracy has crumbled under a dictatorship. Rice has given way to poppies.

Orwell later wrote a novel about the country called Burmese Days. The Burmese joke that it was actually the first of a trilogy that also includes his famous anti-utopian novels Animal Farm, and Nineteen Eighty-Four. They call him "the prophet", though clearly, it's not for his earlier predictions of Burma's rosy future. Few ex-colonial nations have fared quite as poorly as this one.

***
My work takes me to the northern part of Rakhine State in western Burma, on the border with Bangladesh. It is an area that is off-limits to visitors. A mere 200 kilometres away, tourists lounge on beautiful beaches lined with palm trees.

Northern Rakhine State is one of the most repressed parts of Burma. Ethnic groups suffer discrimination in many border regions, but the Rohingya people here have the added difficulty of being a Muslim minority in a largely Buddhist nation. Their persecution dates back decades, and has intensified under the current regime.

In the past 30 years almost half a million Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh. Keen to avoid further international attention, the regime has taken measures to ensure that another exodus will not occur. Today, the borders are heavily guarded and mined. The Rohingya, along with other ethnic minorities, have been effectively stripped of their citizenship, denying them freedom of movement as well as access to education.

The military rulers tolerate the presence of aid organizations only to keep a lid on large-scale humanitarian disasters that would attract more negative international attention. My work allows me to see what most foreigners wouldn't: the realities of daily life under Burma's military dictatorship.

***
As a Canadian newly arrived in Burma it is hard to grasp what it means to be afraid of your country's official leaders. During my first week in the country, I often noticed people speaking in whispers. In Rakhine State, people have the same habit.

I'm supposed to be assessing the social and economic situation here, yet when I conduct surveys, I notice my innocent questions about taxation or education prompt nervous looks over shoulders and evasive, almost inaudible responses. In a land of random injustices where laws are created on a whim and enforced without mercy, nobody wants to give the authorities any reason to be singled out.

In the nation's capital, there are constant undercurrents of tension. Here in Rakhine State, the oppressiveness and abuses are flagrant. Next to the local military headquarters stands a new golf course, built on villagers' seized farmland. Officers come and go in sleek new land rovers with tinted windows. They drive past men, women and children working through intense heat, pounding slabs of rock into gravel for the new roads.

At first, I am allowed to move freely between villages for my work. The villagers however, are unable to tread these same roads without obtaining permission and paying for travel permits. In fact, most people are afraid to travel. Permission to go somewhere does not guarantee permission to return home. This fear affects every aspect of their lives: farmers here do not travel to trade their goods. One woman I work with is scared to attend meetings, fearing she will not be allowed back to her family.

Where people have so little, worship is intensely important. Here, it is used as a weapon against them at every opportunity. One day my colleague, Yusaf, tells me that the Muslim men in his father's community have been made to shave their beards—a demand of enormous significance for these men. I watch people I have come to know in my village being forced to tear down their places of worship and their Koran schools with their own hands. Though the buildings have stood there for years, the military has suddenly decided their construction was illegal.

October is harvest time—the most important income making opportunity for both farmers and the other villagers who work for them. The villagers are paid in rice and can sometimes earn five months worth of food for their families. At this time, the military's random calls to work are the hardest to bear. When a road needs to be built, or a new military camp established, each household in the nearby villages is required to send one person to work. Subsistence farmers who are needed in the fields, are made to labour on the roads, and give their rice to the soldiers.

The abuses are mostly met with silence. People will not criticize the regime. Instead, they give positive, almost scripted answers about how the government is working in their interests. One-on-one, people can sometimes be persuaded to talk about the situation, but in a group, nobody can be sure of the implications of voicing their opinions. Who might be listening? Who might take offence? Instead, they smile, look at the floor, keep quiet.

During my stay I begin to notice strange coincidences. I am randomly denied travel permits, where they are normally granted without incident. I know that all my correspondence is being monitored and I receive ominously vague warnings from the junta about the 'wrong' content of my state-monitored e-mail account. My group is sometimes subject to identification checks at half a dozen military checkpoints within the course of travelling a few kilometres.

Worst of all, I notice changes in my own behaviour. I don't talk about what I'm seeing; my conversations here and my phone calls home are filled with empty pleasantries. We all are forced to keep the silence, in this prison without walls.

***
Back in Rangoon, about to catch a flight to Bangkok, I'm met at the airport by three delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross. They want to know more about the situation in Rakhine State. I look over my shoulder to see various military police and government officials. My experience tells me that the Rangoon airport is not the place for such conversations. I answer in a hushed voice, in that vague way I've learned from the Burmese, that the situation is 'very difficult' for the people there.

On the flight back to Bangkok, I greedily absorb every line of my complimentary copy of the Bangkok Post—the first real newspaper I've seen in months. My fellow passengers are an odd mix of tourists and humanitarian workers. I wonder about the different perspectives we have after spending time in Burma—the beautiful beaches, the golden pagotas, the charming tea-shops. I spend my flight back to Toronto trying to remember the ending of the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Click here to learn more about Burma's history.

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Published in Beyond the Guidebook

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