How safe is travel in Myanmar and should we support it with our tourist dollars?

“Should we continue to tour in Myanmar in light of the recent civil unrest?” This is the question that we at Stray have been wrestling with ever since the news broke last year of the escalating humanitarian crisis unfolding against the Rohingya people along the remote western coastal border of Myanmar.

We know Myanmar as a beautiful and fascinating country, home to an incredibly rich blend of Southeast Asian culture, captivating history and friendly people.

Yet the news that this country, which we consider a magical part of our travel network, is also home to some unjust acts against an ethnic minority has challenged us as advocates for responsible travel.

Just as for any conscientious traveller, we as a travel operator have had to carefully consider from a moral and ethical point of view whether we should continue to support a country whose government has condoned this behaviour.

What’s happening in Myanmar?

Since August 2017, more than half a million Rohingya people have been fleeing persecution and the destruction of their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state across the border to neighbouring Bangladesh.

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority in a predominantly Buddhist country. Although there is evidence that the Rohingya have lived in the Rakhine region for generations (since well before modern national borders were created), the Myanmar government does not recognise them as citizens.

There is a rather convoluted history of tension and conflicts between the different ethnic groups within the Rakhine state, as well as between the Myanmar military and the Rohingya, but it rarely made international headlines until a particularly nasty flare-up in August last year.

The fleeing refugees reported the burning of villages and malevolent violence as they were chased from their homeland . The Myanmar military’s official stance is that they were fighting radical militants, whereas the United Nations has gone on record as calling the military’s actions a form of “ethnic cleansing.”

The big questions for travellers

Q:  “Is it safe to travel to Myanmar?”

Currently, there are no travel restrictions advised for the main tourist destinations. With the Rakhine state located in an isolated area along the northwest coast, hundreds of kilometres away from the main cities of Yangon and Mandalay, there has been little impact to the security in the rest of the country.

Q:  “If I travel to Myanmar (or any country with dodgy human rights records), will my visit indicate I support this persecution?”

This is a big question with many views:  A couple things to consider are where your tourist dollars are going and if you feel even visiting a country symbolically endorses the actions of the government or military.

Financially, some of your money will inevitably end up in the hands of the government in the form of visa fees, taxes and national park entrance fees. However, as a visitor, most of your tourist dollars will likely be invested in smaller, family-owned restaurants, shops and guesthouses. These people depend on tourism for their livelihoods, are not responsible for the military’s actions and may very well not endorse it.

In terms of the symbolism of your visit, if you feel that your presence in the country suggests that you somehow support the violence, then you may wish to save your trip to Myanmar for another time. However, we’ll go over the ways we think tourism can be beneficial in the long run in the next section.

Q: “Should I still travel to Myanmar?”

The answer to this question is really up to you. Stray has made an ethical decision to continue to operate tours and deliver wonderful experiences for our travellers in areas far removed from this conflict. However, we encourage every traveller to do their own independent research in order to make the best decision for them.

How tourism can be beneficial

The main reason people travel is to learn more about the world and to experience foreign places and different cultures. Learning more about the world is rarely a bad thing, and remember that as a traveller, you are also teaching people in the places you visit about you and your own culture.

After all the eye-opening international media cover, visiting Myanmar could be your opportunity to get the locals’ perspective on what’s happening and share with them your views. You can be sure that the messages the locals have been getting from their own media will be vastly different from your version of events. Spreading awareness and sharing information on a personal level could be the best way to fully understand the situation and combat future conflict.

As stated in this excellent article about controversial destinations, “Oppressors need secrecy and compliance to conduct their oppression.” The fact is, the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar is not new – it’s just new on the world stage. Remember that Myanmar’s borders were closed until 2011 and tourism was actively discouraged for about 40 years. International visitors turning their backs on Myanmar will not stop the persecution from happening, but rather allow it to simmer and prosper unnoticed.

In this respect having international people continue to visit Myanmar and engaging in an open and honest dialogue with the locals will be more beneficial in the long run than a boycott.

Stray’s position on Myanmar

It should go without saying, but to be very clear, we at Stray do not support or condone the persecution of the Rohingya minority group.

Despite the country’s troubles, we still believe Myanmar offers an incredibly valuable travel experience to explore a very old, unique and colourful culture. Tourism enables us to support locals whose livelihoods depend on tourist dollars and who are in no way involved in the crisis.

Perhaps more important for our travellers is the opportunity for international visitors to have direct contact with locals and gauge a more accurate insider perspective on the situation without media bias.

As a tourism company, we feel that the best way to combat oppression is with transparency and knowledge, something that you can achieve through travel. Travel should be about breaking down barriers, not building them. We will continue operating in Myanmar so long as we feel we are having a positive impact on both our customers and the local people we work with.

That being said, it is 100% up to you as a traveller to make the decision on whether or not to travel to Myanmar. We strongly encourage you to do your own research on the situation and make an educated decision on what’s right for you.

For additional information, we recommend the following articles as a starting point:

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