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Visiting Burma: How To Do It Responsibly
Posted By Audrey Scott On March 3, 2009 @ 11:58 am In Burma (Myanmar),Southeast Asia,Travel | 14 Comments
While reading Nicholas Kristof’s opinion piece on Burma (Myanmar) last month I was consumed by a rush of memories – conversations and images from of our month-long visit there last year. My comment on his article shares my views regarding the effectiveness of international sanctions in changing the behaviors of the military government (junta). I also address whether or not travel to Burma helps or hurts ordinary people.
I felt there was more to say about the junta and life for ordinary Burmese. But I looked back at a perspective piece we wrote last year – Myanmar, Where Hope Dies Last? – and realized that we already covered the reality and challenges that Burmese people face on a daily basis. We also explained at length why we are glad to have traveled there.
So here are a few thoughts regarding your decision to visit, what you might encounter while applying for a visa, safety concerns, and how to travel responsibly when you are in-country.
Making the Decision to Visit Burma
While we are glad we visited Burma, each person needs to make his/her own personal decision whether to travel to a country with an oppressive government. Do your research and read arguments on both sides of the issue. Consider the benefits of your visit, both to the government and to ordinary people.
We believe our visit contributed more to ordinary citizens of Myanmar (including money we spent in private establishments) than to the government (via taxes and fees). Additionally, our understanding of the country – including the difficulties of everyday life for people and the actions of the junta – is now more sophisticated, for it is rooted in actual experience.
It’s no surprise that travelers serve as some of the best advocates for Burmese people.
Getting a Visa: Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok
“Oh, this doesn’t seem so bad.” Our first impression of the visa application process at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok wasn’t so bad. The employees were exceptionally friendly and courteous, after all. (It might be useful to note that we had recently spent five months in former Soviet Union dealing with frowning bureaucrats)
As we transacted our business at the visa window, we noticed one of the consular officers checking the name and employer of every applicant against two blacklists – one hand-written, another in Microsoft Word – that were heavy with journalistic and human rights organizations.
We were thankful that our company didn’t fit into one of the blacklisted categories and our “consultant” profiles didn’t raise any red flags. Word to the wise: when applying for a visa to Burma, make your employment and professional background sound as boring as possible.
Is Burma Safe?
We have been asked this often, including from our concerned parents before our departure. Yes, Burma is safe for ordinary travelers. The military government – in spite of its faults – does not target travelers. Provided that you adhere to some easy guidelines, you will likely find yourself friction-free.
This doesn’t mean you can get away with distributing human rights pamphlets in broad daylight or venturing into areas where a permit (eg, parts of Shan State) is required. And if you are Nicholas Kristof, you may have something to be worried about. But, if you are an average traveler and act responsibly you shouldn’t experience any problems. We felt safe throughout Burma — much safer in fact than we do in some places in the United States.
It is also worth noting that we had no problems getting our laptops and camera equipment in and out of Burma. We were never questioned or hassled at the airport in Rangoon (Yangon).
Responsible Travel in Burma
It’s impossible to prevent any money from falling into the hands of the junta, but there are ways to make conscious decisions that reduce the net benefit of your visit to the government while maximizing it with local people. Here are a few:
For recommendations on private accommodation and restaurants, check out the practical details section at the bottom of each of the following posts:
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