As I planned my trip to Myanmar, people were skeptical and worried mainly due to the big old fact that all we ever really hear about the country are headlines concerning the human rights violations and crisis that many are currently facing. But, as travel becomes ever more accessible and easy for us all, I want to share my thoughts on whether it’s ethical and good to travel to countries with conflict. I also want to add that these are just my thoughts and you might still have your own reservations after reading which is fine, as long as you’re not quick to reject the idea of visiting and boycotting a whole country and its population by not doing so.
There are SO many countries that we all travel to with conflicts and situations that we don’t all agree with. Whether it’s animal cruelty in Zimbabwe, detaining immigrants in America or gender discrimination in India, it doesn’t stop us visiting the entire country and it doesn’t mean that you’re directly support these issues either. I believe we can cause more good than harm by being aware and present, so where do we start?
What’s the situation?
Before visiting any country, I do feel that it’s really important to understand and know about any situations that may cause concerns regarding ethics, safety and culture. Myanmar (what used to be known as Burma) is home to the world’s longest ongoing civil war with conflict plaguing the country since 1948. It’s currently under accusation of ethnic cleansing with many fleeing genocide, persecution and widespread rape. It’s a really serious conflict that many of us don’t know really know much about.
The Rohingya have been made stateless (though they’ve been living in Myanmar for centuries) meaning they’re without ID’s, unable to work, and are basically unrecognized people with no homes. They’ve been called the world’s most persecuted minority group with many seeking refuge in camps hosted by Bangladesh and India.
The news in Myanmar is also restricted, biased, fake and over-dramatized so many others around the country are not even fully aware of the atrocities happening, making it even worse.
Is it safe?
Myanmar is one of the safest countries in Asia for tourists. Travelling to the areas of conflict are off limits and inaccessible, even for volunteer work and border crossings.
The people are not the government
Myanmar is one of the least wealthy populations in Asia with those living in the main city earning around $60 a month. Tourism keeps money in people’s pockets and not visiting will have a direct impact on them. I actually spoke to one man in particular who expressed his heartache for the fall in tourists due to the ideas of not visiting Bagan, a place where 85% of people rely on tourism. Ask yourself; are you helping anyone by not travelling? The military are mainly financed by exporting gas, stones and agricultural products so tourism money isn’t connected at all. The community needs more than people who are deciding not to visit. It’s not as simple as just turning a blind eye and doing nothing. Money and conversation helps the individual and brings awareness and access to things they might not know about otherwise.
This type of travel isn’t for everyone
There are so many different types of travelers which is amazing, but for countries like Myanmar, I do feel like you have to be a more aware, more understanding and more responsible type of traveler regardless of the conflict.
Myanmar is not a country to party or to just flitter through. The religion, culture and traditions are all pretty untouched and unaffected by western influence and tourism which is what makes it so incredible and sets it apart from countries like Thailand and Vietnam. And the country itself is still a developing one. I think it’s important to know how to be around sensitive situations, to create genuine connections with people and to appreciate and take in their choices and culture without judgement and with honest intentions and respect.
You can visit places like Sanon in Bagan, a non-profit restaurant that trains underprivileged kids to work in the hospitality industry. Good food and a good cause! Could you do that from home?
Like I’ve said before, create little connections. That’s how we all benefit from tourism.
Am I doing more harm than good or vice versa?
As I watched the sunset one night, I couldn’t help but think about the people who were not safe in that moment, not that far away from me. The crisis was always on my mind, but you have to remember that you can make a difference by being there. Ask yourself where is my money going? Where can I make a small impact? Small amounts of money and supporting locals can go a long way for so many here. Use the local taxi men, eat at small eateries and buy souvenirs and gifts from the stalls.
I’ve also worked at a school for Chin refugees, another minority group that fled Myanmar to Malaysia. You can volunteer your time, help to teach classes and hear the heartbreaking but inspiring stories told by the man who helps to run it, Tawk Lian Sang. You can contact me privately if you’d like to get involved with this project.
Educate yourself, educate others and be open to learning more
Be a conscious traveler with respect and understanding
Spend money locally
It’s a different kind of travel and a trip that left a mark on me in so many ways. I can’t express how beautifully natural and untouched the country was. I felt so safe and cared for and this was due to the people being the nicest and most welcoming I’ve ever come across. All in all, I really would encourage you to visit Myanmar if you truly want to (read my blog on travelling the country here). Let’s ensure we’re being better, more sustainable and more responsible travelers.
Just do as much good as you can, always, everywhere.