Myanmar, formerly Burma, has become a bucket-list destination for travelers visiting Southeast Asia. Pagodas, untouched nature, and welcoming locals lure visitors to the less-traveled ASEAN nation that is home to 135 recognized ethnic tribes — a statistic that excludes the Rohingya.
Demands for a travel boycott of Myanmar have launched in response to international condemnation and media coverage of the Rohingya tragedy. Travelers are pressured to consider whether they’re morally endorsing the Burmese military’s inhumane crimes against the Rohingya by visiting Myanmar. Boycotting may seem like the honorable thing to do, as no one wants to be complacent of human suffering, but the reality is that a sanction against Myanmar isn’t noble and won’t positively impact the humanitarian crisis. Here’s why:
Understanding the Rohingya exodus.
The Rohingya are a Muslim community that has resided in the Rakhine state of northern Myanmar for centuries and continually faced discrimination and brutality. This has resulted in a mass exodus — an estimated one million Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar. The mistreatment of Rohingya was labeled “ethnic cleansing” in 2013 by the Human Rights Watch. The United Nations reflects similar views and has labeled the Rohingya as the most persecuted minority on earth. Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, described the situation as a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.
The world has been paying attention to the development of the ethnic persecution of Rohingya after an incident on August 25th. The Burmese government claims that security outposts were attacked by the Rohingya militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) which is recognized as a terrorist organization. Since then, the Burmese military has been actively eradicating Myanmar of the Rohingya.
Violence towards the Rohingya existed long before the current global concern of genocide. Some trace the conflict back to World War II when Rohingya fought along the British and Rakhine Buddhists supported the occupying Japanese. Myanmar was previously under military domination for 50 years during which Rohingya were not permitted to leave the Northern Rakhine State, and other Burmese were not allowed to enter the region. Rohingya have been denied basic human rights including higher education and health care for decades. They were previously required to commit to not having more than two offspring.
Members of the Rohingya society have been denied citizenship in Myanmar since the 1974 Emergency Immigration Act and again in 1982 under the Burmese Citizen Law which reinforced the governing military’s stance that Rohingya are unwelcomed illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Rohingya are entirely stateless and do not even exist according to Burmese rhetoric. The term Rohingya alone recognizes that they are a minority group and thus the phrase is hardly used in Myanmar. Instead, many Burmese refer to the group by what is known as a derogatory racial slur in Myanmar: “Bengali”.
The hate towards the Rohingya has been positioned by international media as a Muslim vs. Buddhism agenda adding to increasing global Islamophobia. The issues go beyond religion — it is rooted in citizenship rights such as government support, education, and job opportunities. Many Muslim Burmese live in peace in major cities such as Yangon and Mandalay where there are many Islamic communities.
Doctors Without Borders conducted a field survey and found that, at minimum, 6,700 Rohingya Muslims were murdered by Burmese security forces during the eruption of violence last August and September. In contrast, the Burmese Office of the State Counsellor claims the death toll is closer to 432. It’s difficult to verify the narrative, tally the dead, or gauge the damage, as both journalist and aid workers are banned from entering the area.
The information reported by trusted news outlets has been gathered from satellite imagery and interviews with Rohingya who have survived the dangerous journey to the refugee camps in Bangladesh. Entire communities have lost their homes, livestock, and fields of produce due to fires started by the military. Extradited Rohingya have reported that Burmese military members have gang-raped women and savagely murdered children. According to the Burmese forces, the recent offensive against Rohingya is meant to target terrorism, but most victims from the ongoing massacres have been unarmed villagers, not Rohingya insurgents. Burmese officials continuously claim that these stories are exaggerated.
Do travel boycotts lead to change?
Considering that the systematic violence towards Rohingya has been happening for the better part of 50 years, the simple answer is no. Although there was never an official ban on travelers entering Myanmar, pressure from Western governments urged travelers to avoid visiting the country. During this time of minimal tourism in the nation, horrific war crimes continued to occur. The unofficial travel boycott didn’t affect the Burmese military or change their attitude towards Rohingya.
A travel boycott won’t encourage the militia to stop the pogrom of Rohingya. The conflict has been ongoing for decades and is gaining more attention in part thanks to foreign visitors raising awareness and media meeting demands for information about the Rohingya. This exposure of the horrid actions of the military would not have happened, nor will it continue to happen, should Myanmar be sanctioned by foreign nations.
A travel boycott would further endanger the Rohingya. By isolating the country, the military would be able to discreetly continue to cleanse Myanmar of Rohingya without being held accountable. A travel boycott would eradicate the progress being made towards exposing the actions of the Burmese junta. The Burmese people are also not a reflection of their military. It would be Burmese civilians, not the military, that are the collateral damage of a travel boycott.
A decline in tourism simply won’t change the Rohingya emergency but could severely worsen the situation. “A tourism boycott wouldn’t help the Rohingya as it may antagonize some of the hardliner bigots even more,” says Yin Myo Su, Founder of the Inle Heritage Foundation. A panacea must be reached but a tourist boycott would provide no aid to the Rohingya. It would be dangerous and catalyze blaming Rohingya for a drop of tourism in Myanmar.
Burmese-American and frequent traveler Mary Marston shares that, “a travel boycott may make the person or group instating it look good, but it’s not really helping anyone but their own moral compasses.” To boycott is a sign of extreme privilege. Travelers may elect to spend their tourism dollars in another country, but the locals that rely on foreign spending for their income won’t easily find other opportunities to earn a living in nations plagued with poverty.
Mi Mi Soe, a local guide for Sa Ba Street Food Tours, explains that “Myanmar has only recently opened up to the world after decades of the people being closed off. It is important that we find our place alongside the rest of the world and try to find solutions together, rather than push each other away again. Not every person in the country is involved or kept up-to-date on the conflict, many ordinary people do not want to see pain between any race or religion. ”
Tourism doesn’t fund the military brutality.
The government and military are not the same entity in Myanmar. They operate separately with the military widely influencing the democratic government. The constitution was drafted by the military in 2008 and did not give the government control of the army. Instead, the military holds power over the police, border patrol, security services and 25% of parliament.
Today, the majority of people working in tourism in Myanmar are operating private businesses. Previously, the military dominated the tourism sector and owned the majority of hotels and transportation operators. To be a responsible traveler, think twice before buying a data sim card from state-owned MPT. Don’t stay at hotels believed to be affiliated with the regime. Avoid flying with state-owned Myanmar National Airlines (MNA) as well as Bagan Airways or Yangon Airways which are on the US Treasury blacklist. Don’t visit the Mandalay Palace which is a newly active military base without much historic importance.
It’s inevitable that the government will benefit from visa fees, which are US$50 for most nationalities for a 28-day visa, entry fees to Bagan (US$18.25 for a 5-day permit), Inle Lake (US$10 for a 5-day permit), and tax revenue from purchases. But the government is not the military and the revenue from these fees and taxes support government programs that organize public healthcare and education.
Tourism funds locals whose livelihood depends on travelers.
The tourism industry in Myanmar is nascent. Although the borders in Myanmar were never closed to foreign visitors, tourism has only spiked in recent years. Soe says that “over the last 5 years, tourism has been a very positive force, creating many jobs and opportunities that never previously existed in our communities. I work as a street food tour guide and this type of job never existed before tourists started visiting and wanted to discover our local food. On our tours, we visit family-run places to be sure that all of the money is being spent responsibly at a local level.”
Tourism is vital to the local economy in Myanmar, especially among the lower class. Marston has seen this first-hand, “tourism is helping alleviate poverty in Myanmar by creating new jobs in tourism, hospitality, and infrastructure-related industries because of the need to accommodate tourists.” The Oxford Business Group reports that employment from tourism in Myanmar will rise by 66% between 2015 and 2026. The potential for tourism to impact the country is immense.
Many locals who live under the international poverty line have the opportunity to benefit from tourism-related income. Su reflects that “Community-based tourism in villages can provide not only support for the community, but it can bring meaningful encounters between guests and hosts, and it can increase local’s pride in traditions and revive culture.”
Traveling responsibly in Myanmar, or any nation, puts money directly into local hands. From booking privately-owned transportation, staying at guesthouses, eating at hole-in-the-wall establishments, hiring self-employed guides at heritage sites, and purchasing souvenirs from artisans are just a few ways travelers can support local communities directly. Not only are these travel choices ethical, they’re typically more affordable.
Sammy Grill, General Manager for Intrepid Travel in Myanmar shares, that “there have been company-wide debates at Intrepid on whether to visit Myanmar. The majority decision is that we do not boycott destinations for ethical reasons, but instead we make sure that our trips include as many local experiences as we can. That’s how we can introduce both travelers and locals to different views and cultures.”
Visiting Myanmar does not normalize the plight of the Rohingya.
As travelers, we may engage in meaningful dialogue with locals. Su wants international travelers to “interact with young people, help with their language training, learn about the character of Myanmar’s unique ethnic groups. Visitors can help locals learn more about the world outside of Myanmar, inspiring them to reach beyond the circumstances that have confined them in the past.” Travelers can be a part of a paradigm shift by sharing their educated stance on human rights, exploitation, and violence. When appropriate, disseminate facts and encourage locals to think for themselves in order to come to their own conclusions. Some Burmese fear the military and believe that discussing politics can be dangerous in public — only initiate conversations in a private setting and never impose your own emotionally-driven views.
Su encourages travelers “to apply the same moral lens when speaking of other tourist destinations. Don’t practice selective moralization with Myanmar and not with others.” Boycotting tourism in controversial destinations does more harm than good. Continued tourism in Myanmar will keep the global spotlight on the Rohingya crisis which will increase international demand for the Burmese military to halt their abhorrent agenda.
Ultimately the choice to visit a country where the military or any force of power is violating international human right laws is deeply personal. Travelers cannot visit with the mindset that nothing has happened and must make responsible decisions when visiting the country.
For ways to directly contribute support to Rohingya, the New York Times released a vetted list of organizations, originally published in 2014, that accept donations and has kept the page up-to-date with current aid providers. Global Giving, BRAC, and Partners.ngo have also started refugee relief funds.