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Myanmar: once again, that eternal travel dilemma

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaShould travellers ostracise a country – so dependent on their goodwill and dollars – to fight a thuggish regime unleashing new horrors each day?

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Boats ply on Inle Lake

Boats ply on Myanmar's storied Inle Lake. These are regions that benefit directly from tourism and personal contact with travellers. The spend is local. It is worth pondering as calls grow for a Burma boycott.

ONCE Covid-19 has been sufficiently tamed with stiff arms and stout hearts, attention will turn again to travel and, for so many, an all too familiar leitmotif has re-emerged – the continuing tragedy of Myanmar. As George Orwell wrote in Burmese Days, published in 1934, “Beauty is meaningless, until it is shared.”

While this quote by John Flory, the lonely young white protagonist with only sparrows and a mosquito net for company, touched upon his craving for human succour, he may well have been writing about the country itself, beautiful, mysterious, tormented, secluded, and shrouded in secrecy. A magnet, equally, for travellers, sanctions, and trade embargoes.

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The country has remained under the serial offender spotlight for the junta’s heavy-handed suppression of the democratic instinct, first with Ne Win’s coup d'état in 1962, which ushered in a painful and unworkable brand of autarkic socialism under his Burma Socialist Programme Party, then with blundering military rule by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) that crushed the 1988 student uprising, then made a surprise decision to hold elections in 1990 (won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy) before invalidating those results and placing her under house arrest. By the time of the November 2020 elections in which the NLD swept the polls once again only to be followed by a military coup in February 2021, this had become a familiar farce, but with a brutal twist.

The colonial rulers, referred to in Orwell’s book as, “A dull, decent people, cherishing and fortifying their dullness behind a quarter of a million bayonets,” have been replaced by an equally dull but far more lethal junta, unversed in and unwilling to adopt the principal of ‘one man one vote’. As demonstrations continue, atrocity after atrocity has been unleashed by the army. The country once again looks to the West for help.

{Do-gooders race to wield a big stick, often forgetting that tourism is an industry that penetrates deeply into the local community and is a genuine multiplier

The long simmering northern Rakhine state conflict with murky origins in the second world war when the Rohingya Muslims and local Buddhists picked opposing sides (the latter teamed up with the Japanese), has been another ongoing tragedy. Fearing the historic mujahiddeen leaning towards autonomy or even absorption by Bangladesh (once East Pakistan), Muslim apartheid has become an unspoken state policy, fiercely backed by Buddhist prelates. Even Suu Kyi, a poster child of the Western media, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent struggle, shunned the Rohingya after resuming her political life as State Councillor in 2016.

In fact, there has never been a dull moment in Myanmar, since Orwell’s departure.

Now, following the latest coup, once again cries for a travel boycott of Myanmar along with harsh economic penalties, are mounting. There seemed to be no overt perfidy on the part of China and Thailand, both heavily invested in the country and with the most to gain. They appeared as surprised at this turn of events as the rest of the world, even though the precarious power sharing arrangement between the military and the civilian leadership had dangerously wobbled from the start under its own contradictions and limitations. But is further isolation feasible, or the right tonic for the liberation of a reclusive state that even today resembles a daguerreotype, circa 1950?

Do-gooders often race to wield a big stick, forgetting that tourism is an industry that penetrates deeply into the local community.

Activist group Justice for Myanmar, has called for tough sanctions on over 130 military backed businesses, from gems and mining to palm oil, sugar and tourism. A spokesperson said, “We are appalled that Hilton is operating a hotel in Arakan state that directly finances the Myanmar army.” Hilton operates three hotels in that region, two of which are currently closed.

Travel industry employment is a huge consideration. In 2019 China had over 29 million people employed in this sector, India 27m, Thailand 2.4m, and Bangladesh 1.2m. The Union of Myanmar Travel Association (UMTA) estimates that in mid-2020 about 800,000 people were directly employed in tourism with indirect employment climbing to over 1.5m.

While not a major player like the Maldives (which secures 28 percent of its annual GDP through tourism and had already pulled in a stonking 250,000 visitors in the first quarter of 2021), a country like Myanmar generated a modest 6.7 percent of its GDP through travel in 2019. Yet, the informal dependency on tourism is far higher than this figure might suggest once you take into account hotel and airline employees (and their families), engineers, fuel suppliers, laundry service providers, tour agents, handicraft businesses, restaurants, cleaners, speciality stores, local shops, and transportation.

Travel, with its people-to-people interaction and direct spend, is a genuine multiplier. Change is rarely wrought through isolation. One does not need to look farther than North Korea to realise that extreme isolation is an exercise in perversity. If your neighbour is beating his wife every day, simply harrumphing grandiosely and looking the other way every time you pass will not have any ameliorating effect.

There is oftentimes a tendency to confuse a regime with its peoples. Brutal regimes thrive in isolation. Targeted tightening of economic pilliwinks and individual sanctions are certainly part of the solution to demonstrate civilised governments mean business and that bad behaviour will not win a seat at the high table. But the chief message of cheer – as well as comfort from the outside world – comes with the messenger, the traveller, who buys, tips, drinks, entertains, explores, chats, and then does it all again the next day. That is what keeps hope alive, and life-saving dollars in circulation. It is something travellers need to think deeply about as they weigh compassion, conscience, and common sense. Not an easy choice.

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