For the Wanderers, adventure beckons, curiosity drives and the untouched summons.
To create dust where few have walked, to view a blue horizon hundreds of miles from the ocean, to be completely unreachable and to have your best laid plans rendered worthless are highs unmatched by anything else.
Thus, the search for the next hit is endless.
Myanmar is a destination as enticing as any on the travellers map. With a perfect mix of politics, poverty, mystique, religion, architecture and natural majesty the country formerly known as Burma has both attracted and deterred over the past half century.
In the slow, patient, ox like manner only Asia can master, Burma is changing and the erosion of its reputation amongst Westerners and travellers is well underway. If you think might be blinking, you probably are and you may miss it.
The internally and internationally revered, Aung San Suu Kyi proclaimed in 1995 that travellers should ‘visit us later’ and that anyone doing so in the meantime was in effect ‘condoning the regime.’ The wanderers listened.
The military junta’s hopes for up to half a million visitors in their 1996 ‘Visit Myanmar Year’ was a disaster, with less than 200, 000 travellers passing through the country. Two years ago Burma could still not attract the cherished 500, 000 mark, officially welcoming only 391, 000. However, tourism is fast on the rise in Burma and the magical 1 million mark is set to be eclipsed, if not this year, then in the next couple. Though for some sobering perspective, neighbouring Thailand received 19 million visitors in 2011.
Change is clearly afoot, yet many are still wondering whether Burma is a somewhere we should be wandering to.
The catalyst for the ‘90’s boycott was to highlight the human rights abuses of the military junta, the slave labour used to prepare tourist infrastructure, the income generating regime owned hotels and the displacement of rural communities for big name hotels, particularly in Old Bagan. While the latter issues have apparently ceased, human rights continues to be a concept beyond the grasp of Burma’s leaders.
Suu Kyi has freed many travellers from the shackles of guilt by dropping her call for a complete boycott and arguing instead for ‘responsible tourism’ in her homeland. Exactly what this entails has not been outlined, though one could assume she is not welcoming the sex tourists, FIFO tourists, party goers and gap yah / schoolies who frequent Myanmar’s neighbours to the east. As a country shielded from Western culture for half a century it is doubtful the latter will be enticed and the FIFO infrastructure is not yet in place; though for the former, a largely unregulated, desperately poor, emerging virgin nation is no doubt alluring. Nevertheless, the overarching cloud of human rights abuses in Burma continues, no matter who is visiting or what they are doing there.
The ethnic Rohingya are amongst the most persecuted people in the world, reviled and unwelcome in their homeland. Even Suu Kyi, a heroine and icon of peace to many around the world, has been silent on their plight, proving she is after all a politician first and humanitarian second. The UNHCR estimates 13, 000 people left from the Bay of Bengal on smugglers’ boats last year and in the first week of 2013 an estimated 2,000 have followed from Rakhine state and the neighbouring areas of Bangladesh.
In the countries North, the ethnic Chin, known to many Australians from the SBS series ‘Go back to where you came from,’ are also being attacked by the government. At least 50, 000 are currently displaced and the Yangon government has reportedly used aerial bombings and chemical weapons against rebels in the resource rich Kachin state. In the southern Karen state, the Karen National Union are celebrating a year long ceasefire with the central government after decades of fighting, though sceptics wonder how much the deal has to do with the multi-billion dollar deep sea port project in Dawei. Burma’s generous big brother, China, is the key investor and benefactor of the infrastructure projects in the area, indeed throughout most of Burma.
Finally, as if decades of repressive military rule and a bloody, globally televised 2007 Saffron revolution were not enough, Mother Nature unleashed Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and 140, 000 Burmese were killed directly as winds of over 200km/h destroyed houses, flattened villages and flooded farms. Many more are estimated to have died and suffered unnecessarily by the junta blocking, siphoning and delaying emergency aid.
With such a dismal record of past and current human rights abuses in Burma can we justify wandering there? If human rights were a roadblock on the wanderers path we would rarely venture anywhere. None of Burma’s immediate neighbours – India, Bangladesh, China, Lao or Thailand can lay claim to having a clean sheet. All retain capital punishment, with China the number one offender, executing over 2000 people in 2011; none rank in the top 100 for press freedom, with Bangladesh the best performed at 129; in all countries the rights and roles of women are subjugated; ethnic, political and religious tensions exist between many groups and their national governments; and on the transparency international scale they rank between 80 (China) and 160 (Lao) as the most corrupt countries in the world. Yet many are high on the wandering list. If we extend our path wider we reach Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Vietnam and Cambodia. None of these countries fare much better on the human rights scale, yet we also wander to many of these places without a second thought.
The counter argument is that Burmese tourism has been so closely linked to human rights abuses, as outlined above. Yet even then, the arguments for a wander to Burma are just as compelling. Compared to Cuba, where many wander without hesitation, rather haste, (probably in a Che Guevara t shirt and with an Aung Sun Suu Kyi biography in their rucksack), Burmese tourism dollars flow much easier to the general population. The state owned Cuban tourism industry raked in $2.3 billion dollars in 2008. Conversely, the Burmese tourism industry is largely privatised, with an estimated 600, 000 directly employed and a similar number benefitting indirectly. In a country where international aid in 2009 was $4 per person per year, compared to Cambodia ($48) and Lao ($68), income from travellers is extremely beneficial. Where Western governments and institutions continue sanctions, which many argue keep the population in poverty, tourism as a form of unofficial aid can be critical.
Whatever validity Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s argument had in the 1990’s, 2013 is time for a new discourse. Increased tourism in Burma will bring both opportunity and misfortune. Unfortunately it will mean increased land disputes, tree felling, interruption if not complete displacement of urban and rural communities, exploitation of women and children and urbanisation, including the introduction of foreign businesses. Yet it will also bring economic development for thousands living in poverty, opportunities for eco-tourism and other ‘responsible tourism’ projects, improved infrastructure, greater global attention to the plight of Burma’s persecuted ethnic groups and hopefully a greater chance of democracy – the one prize the Burmese people have been striving for over 60 years.
Whether the wanderers choose to travel the Burmese path or not, it is a path that is becoming more and more popular.
The untouched summons the wanderer and Burma will soon cease to be that.