After deciding to go to Myanmar and encountering beautiful people, food and scenery, I reflect on whether it is ethical to visit a country with on-going conflict. The Western media has lately covered conflict in the Rakine state, where upwards of 500,000 ‘stateless’ Rohingya people have fled military violence and many thousands more have reportedly been killed. I am also aware of tension in other states too, such as Karen, Kachin and Shan States. In parts of Karen State, there have been clashes between the military and the Karen National Liberation Army, prompting an exodus from several villages.
I had two main concerns travelling to such a conflict ridden country. First, my safety was paramount. As per my last blog, I notably found that I was not only safe, but also warmly welcomed and looked after by those I met. As a solo woman traveller I felt remarkably safer compared with some other places I’ve visited. Perhaps as a consequence of Southern Myanmar having not long been readily accessible to foreign tourists, it didn’t appear to be corrupted by tourism like other places in the region can be (like parts of neighbouring Thailand, where I sometimes feel that I am seen as money rather than a person). Because of this, people were genuinely helpful and gracious when I gave money when it was due.
A second concern is that visiting might in some way support the violence and oppression which is happening elsewhere in the country. Myanmar is a reasonably large country (roughly 2.5 times the land area of New Zealand), much of it is currently peaceful, with conflict found in isolated areas. Most people seemed to be getting on with life, striving to develop and modernise. The tumultuous portrait that the Western media paints of Myanmar is not reality in many parts of the country. Evidence of the military was sporadic, although I did observe numerous military bases in some areas.
Tourism is critical to support the local people, not only economically, but also through friendship and learning. Travel is the ideal platform to connect people and countries, to share knowledge and learn from each other. The people I met were open and eager to show me their culture, food and country. They taught me much and I hope through my short visit, some of them learnt something from me. Anecdotally I heard that in Dawei tourist numbers have fallen this year, likely due to foreign perceptions of the country associated with current conflict. Declining tourist numbers unfortunately only serve to hurt those who rely on tourism for a living, sometimes forcing people to emigrate due to lack of employment opportunities.
Dawei: not to be missed! Beautiful beaches, stunning pagodas and rural village life
In light of my recent travel experiences in Southern Myanmar against my knowledge of current and previous violence and restricted political freedom, is it ethical to travel there? My view is yes. Tourists who are willing to learn and support locals are needed now more than ever, to help connect the people of Myanmar with the rest of the world and boost their economy. Would I recommend visiting Myanmar? Definitely. Be prepared for an adventure, for a bit of chaos, but most of all to meet the open-hearted dwellers of Myanmar. Would I go back? I’m already planning my next trip.