What’s the Problem With Traveling to Burma?
Going on holiday to Burma isn’t like going to Italy or Thailand. Responsible traveling is an issue everywhere, even in domestic tourism – but your decision whether to go to Burma or not (and if you go: how you do it) poses ethical questions much more serious than for other destinations.
Around one half of the Burmese state budget fills the army’s coffers, while only a small percentage is used for education and health. Burma is ‘cursed’ by its rich resources that make it possible for a small elite to live quite well from the profits from the extractive industries without relying on a skilled and healthy population. Apart from these sources, tourism has always been considered as another potential source of income.
The junta proclaimed 1996 to be ‘Visit Myanmar Year’. It attracted, however, far fewer tourists than hoped. According to The Irrawaddy, visitor numbers are currently on the rise, with a 33 percent increase from 2009 to 2010 when 300,000 people visited Burma. Compare that with roughly 14 million visitors per year to Thailand.
Inevitably, every visitor funds the regime through visa fees and unknowingly through other spending. But what’s more, the creation of tourist infrastructure and services involved grave human rights violations.
Supporting the People
There are, on the other hand, several arguments that speak in favor of going to Burma. Most notably, tourism could let the population benefit from the emerging business, it could improve the bidirectional flow of information, skills, and people across the borders. Tourism could also represent symbolic support, showing the Burmese that they are not forgotten and that contact with the world is not a prerogative of the rich, the powerful, and the ruthless.
Burma’s Ethnic Groups
One of Burma’s core problems is caused by improper handling of its ethnic diversity. Burma’s population is made up of about 130 ethnic groups (and wherever we write “Burmese” in this project we mean them all). From colonial times throughout the history of Burma, the country’s rulers have not done enough to ensure equal rights and sufficient autonomy. Discrimination and human rights violations based on ethnic origin are still common and in some areas the Burmese army targets ethnic civilians.
While tourism and foreign investments might theoretically work their magic in the central areas of Burma and wealth can trickle down to those parts of the population that are allowed access, the ethnic groups living close to Burma’s borders appear to lose out once again.
Any efforts to help and empower the people of Burma must address this problem. Burma will never be a stable democracy if it cannot provide freedom, safety, and material security to all of its people.
When talking about the impact of tourism on the people of Burma, we should not forget the millions of Burmese who have had to leave the country. Most of them live in appalling conditions in Thailand, India, Bangladesh, and Malaysia. Only a small number of those who have left are recognized as refugees, since Burma’s neighbors have not signed the Geneva Refugee Convention.
Moreover, there is an estimated 500,000 Burmese IDPs (Internally Displaced People) living inside their own country but deprived of their homes. They, too, would not naturally benefit from an increased inflow of funds. But we do hope that having a rising number of foreigners looking critically at the things they encounter in Burma would force the Burmese government to stop playing down the country’s problems and to actually improve the situation.
If we want to help the people of Burma, we certainly cannot ignore Burmese migrants.
Forced labor for insufficient or no wage is rampant throughout Burma. People are forced to repair streets or build fences around their villages, to serve as porters for the military, or to risk their lives as human mine-sweepers.
In many cases, tourism projects may be directly connected to the use of forced labor. For example in Mandalay, every family in the city had to contribute at least three days a month of unpaid labor to such a project.
In 2006, Burmese labor activist Su Su Nway received the Freedom Prize for her efforts. Although she has been brave enough to sue the authorities over forced labor, and even succeeded, it did not take long for the regime to retaliate against her. Su Su Nway was sent to prison for allegedly threatening and swearing at local authorities.
State-sponsored forced labor has repeatedly triggered criticism by the International Labour Organization:
The number of child laborers in Burma might be in the hundreds of thousands. Underage employees are often preferred to adults because they don’t complain much. For example, you can read a story here about child labor in a cigar factory.
One particularly outrageous form of child labor that is unofficially practiced by the regime is the use of child soldiers. Burma is notorious for its child soldier statistics.
Profit motives, poverty, and the population’s insufficient awareness continue to destroy the environment in Burma. This occurs through logging, the utilization of cultivable land for unusual crops like Jatropha, the establishment of facilities like golf courses, production of waste or indirectly through the wasting of energy in traffic and air conditioning.
Specific problems include Burma’s extraction and transport of natural resources like gas and oil and its hydropower projects.
Notably, tourism is also claimed to be one of the causes of the country’s environmental problems.
Despite some PR-effective measures like the recently established reservation for tigers, environmental protection are of low priority and people in Burma often seem to find it rather laughable to pursue this goal. Admittedly, large parts of the population are concerned with more serious worries like trying to make a living. This excuse, however, certainly doesn’t apply to foreign tourists.
Burma’s war on ethnic groups and its hydropower projects are infamous as causes of forced relocation, leading to an estimated 500,000 Internally Displaced Persons – or almost 1% of the total population.
Villages were removed to refurbish the heritage site Pagan/Bagan and construct tourist facilities.
On the Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International, Burma ranked second last out of 178 countries, underperformed only by Somalia and sharing its position with war-torn Afghanistan. Tourism as an exceptional source of foreign currency is certainly no clean business.
You can find other reports on tourism here.