Myanmar (Burma) is a country noted for its oppressive government and lauded for the kindness of its people. This September, though, the political situation heated up again under protests and a corresponding government crackdown.
We’re back in the neighborhood of Southeast Asia again and we have the opportunity to visit. Do we go this time or give it another pass?
We debated this question a few days ago. We also faced a similar choice earlier in the year when we decided to visit Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, two countries known for their less-than-pleasant regimes.
One camp advocates a travel ban. After all, a portion of tourist expenditures ends up in the hands of the government through taxes and payments to state-controlled tourist agencies. Some go so far as to suggest that tourism to these countries constitutes tacit support for their governments.
The other camp suggests that travelers should continue to visit these countries in order to meet local people and to support their local tourist industries and economies. Although oppressive governments may arguably deserve to be shut off, the victims of these regimes – ordinary everyday people – do not. Furthermore, there’s an argument to be made for greasing the wheels of dialogue and tourist diplomacy.
Earlier in the year, we chose to travel to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and we are glad we did. Our visits to those countries equipped us with a broader perspective and a greater understanding of what life is like – good and bad – for people living there.
Earlier in the year, we passed up the opportunity to visit Myanmar. After hearing stories from other travelers regarding how incredibly kind the Burmese people are, we figured we’d seize the opportunity to visit this time around.
Though it’s unrealistic to prevent any of the money we spend there from ending up in the hands of the government, it is possible to take steps to reduce their take. We’ll stay in private guest houses and buy directly from street vendors. We’ll take non-government transport when possible. Our goal is to spread around whatever money we spend in a manner that benefits as many ordinary people as possible.
Myanmar – The Visa Application
Given the recent crackdowns in Myanmar earlier this year, obtaining a visa seems relatively straightforward. Although the application form asks for an employer and an address in Myanmar, it does not ask the applicant to specify a sponsor or an exact route through the country, as many Central Asian visa applications often do. We did, however, sign away our right to interfere with Myanmar’s internal affairs.
If you aren’t a “normal” tourist, the Myanmar visa application process becomes more complicated. For example, we overheard the visa officer question the man next to us about his wife’s employment for an international organization in Bangkok. The Embassy of Myanmar required a letter from her employer stating that the visit would be for tourist purposes only and not be related to work. In explaining all this, the visa officer was remarkably polite, however. He apologized for the inconvenience and explained that the new regulations from Yangon (Myanmar’s capital) required this additional check.
We also noticed that the woman behind the counter processing passports had a hard copy blacklist binder full of individual and company names. She checked each application and passport against the list. She followed that up with a check against an electronic blacklist, her Microsoft Word Find function open and poised to screen each name for a second time.
We were grateful for our “consultant-traveler” backgrounds. Apparently, we did not appear on any blacklist. We happily collected our visas three days later.
Reporting from Myanmar
While we are curious to speak to people in Myanmar about their lives and their feelings regarding the current social and political situation, we understand that we need to be careful not to put anyone at risk. The reality in visiting oppressive regimes is this: the threat to our safety is often dwarfed by the threat to the safety of talkative locals who draw the ire of authorities by spending too much time with visitors.
Other than that, we don’t really know what to expect in Myanmar. We’ve been in this situation before, however, and are open and curious to learn. We’ll be sure to share what we find, although it will likely be after we exit the country. We expect some serious internet controls in Myanmar when we visit.