Traveling Responsibly in Burma

I'm going to Burma in 19 days and it's giving me anxiety. I don't usually get too stressed about travel itineraries and over-planning when I go abroad. I never buy guidebooks and cringe at the idea of booking a tour operator. Give me a good 3-4 days of internet surfing and I have a handful of possible travel routes worked out. But not with Burma. 12 days there is stressing me out. I'm not worried about safety (I'm well connected and well protected), or expenses (I'm more or less rolling in dough) or hitting all the sites in my limited amount of time (seen one or two, seen 'em all... sort of).

Here's the thing. I believe that as citizens of the world, we have a duty to travel responsibly. We shouldn't flaunt our wealth or enforce our culture upon the areas we visit. We should make an effort to at least learn Hello and Thank You in whatever languages we can, and then some. And we shouldn't go to places we're not welcome.

That last one is what's got me all riled up and ready for a guilt complex. Aung San Suu Kyi (Burmese political leader [and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate] currently under house arrest [for fighting for democracy. How dare she!] made a statement requesting that tourists stay out of Burma for now. Travel money goes straight to the hands of the military junta running the place.

72% of people polled here said travelers should avoid Burma. Another report cites, "The military dictatorship is eager to encourage tourism, and tries hard to present an attractive image to the world." (link) I don't want my money spent on ammunition, oppression or the lavish wedding of General Than Shwe's daughter.

But there is a flip side. Many pro-Burma organizations (like the Free Burma Coalition) say that travel to Myanmar, when done responsibly, is a good thing. It brings outside influence to an otherwise isolated people (good, not in an ethnocentric way, but in that they can see that what they endure is not normal and shouldn't be accepted), awareness to the outside (as long as travelers are aware and spread the word upon their return home), and if done right, some say that just 2 percent of travel funds could end up in the hands of the junta. Lu Maw, one of the Mustache Brothers (famous Burmese satirists) said, "We need many ears, many eyes. The regime is rich - if tourists don't come it makes no difference to them. But it does to us." (link)

So I'm going. And planning, more than I ever have for a trip, to make sure that I do it right.

This Damien Rice song was written for Aung San Suu Kyi. There used to be a great video on YouTube with video of her in action interposed with Damien and Lisa singing (their voices sounded better too) but alas, copyright issues and this live version isn't bad.

Go Damien and hygiene. Maybe that's why Lisa Hannigan left you for a decent (US-Bound) solo career.


Raelle said...

I wish I could go with you. Just be safe and do not try to do anything stupid.

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