Myanmar has been in the international news a lot the past couple of weeks, and it hasn’t been for the glorious stupa-dotted landscape of Bagan or the tranquil waters of Inle Lake. It’s been for the religious and ethnic persecution of the Muslim Rohingya minority of Rakhine State by the Burmese army and militia groups, and the response, or lack thereof, on the part of the Myanmar government.
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority that have been living in Rakhine State, part of modern-day Myanmar, for centuries. During British rule (1824-1948), there was a surge in Rohingya migration, labourers coming to Rakhine State from what is today’s India and Bangladesh. The living conditions of the Rohingya, who are mainly concentrated in western Rakhine State, are among the poorest in the world.
Since independence, the situation for the Rohingya has gone from bad to worse, starting with only limited access to identity cards, to legislation that has essentially rendered them stateless. The Burmese army and Buddhist supremacist militia have long sought to eradicate Myanmar of the Rohingya and have been exercising systematic violence akin to war crimes and ethnic cleansing with view to complete genocide.
It is approximated that 1 million Rohingya are currently living in Myanmar, while another one million more have fled to neighboring countries since the 1970s. The latest wave of intense violence started on 25 August 2017, when Rohingya militants belonging to a group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) attacked police posts in northern Rakhine, resulting in 12 deaths. In retaliation, the Burmese army with the backing of Buddhist militia have launched a “clearance operation” that have razed villages to the ground, and raped and murdered over a thousand civilians – men, women and children. More than 300,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar in the past three weeks alone.
It is a humanitarian crisis that is being likened to the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, and I cannot express enough my complete and unequivocal condemnation of these war crimes, and my utter disappointment in the response of Aung San Suu Kyi and her government. But unlike many who have taken to social media to express their desire to never lay a foot (again) in the country, I am not going to join you in boycotting travel to Myanmar and here’s why.
The violence occurring in Rakhine State is not new
While much of the world is just learning of the persecution of the Muslim Rohingya occurring in Rakhine State, it is a situation that has been ongoing for decades. Of course, it is one that categorically and without question must stop. But, I ask you, is boycotting the country outright the solution?
Myanmar has only really opened up to tourism over the past several years, the lack of tourists nor their spending never stopped the slaughter of innocent people before, and unfortunately it won’t now either.
Change will only come if we engage
While a travel boycott may not do much in realistic terms to stem military violence, I know many of you want to make a stand from a moral perspective. I completely understand you, I really do. But as much as I make similar pledges to all kinds of causes, I’m not sure disengaging with an entire country will have the desired effect.
For one, let’s think about how we’ve come to know so much about this issue and others that are going on in Myanmar. It is through increased media access and people like you and I on the ground sharing what we see and hear. Cutting off this flow of information will not make the government or the military more accountable; it will only serve to allow them to fulfill their abhorrent agenda behind closed doors. We need to keep international attention on this and we can only do so through maintaining a dialogue.
Who will benefit from a boycott?
It certainly won’t be the hundreds of thousands of people across the country who rely on tourism for their livelihoods – the family-run guesthouses and restaurants, the guides or the local tour operators. As much as the Myanmar government profits from tourism, they will not be crippled by a boycott; it will be the people of Myanmar who are.
If Myanmar recedes back into its days of isolation, whether because the military quashes the quasi-democracy and reinstates martial law, or the world seeks a travel boycott, we lose the chance to make real change in Myanmar, and we take away the capacity of everyday citizens of the country to engage with the world, have their voices heard and to learn about issues such as human rights.
The people of Myanmar too want change
When we visited Myanmar in May this year, we spoke to many local people who held great hopes for the future. They know Myanmar faces many problems and they didn’t all end in November 2015 with the first democratically elected civilian government in 50 years. But they were riding high on the hope of change and already felt as if their lives were better off open to the world.
Cutting off the country from our tourism is more than just about economics; it’s about saying that Myanmar, and all its people, are on their own. And can we really say in the current state of global politics that the actions of our governments always represent the will of the people?
The fall from grace of Aung San Suu Kyi
One of the biggest stories coming out of Myanmar is not just of the atrocities in Rakhine State, but the response of the government to the military violence. State Counsellor, Foreign Affairs Minister and national figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi’s lack of condemnation of the military’s actions there, and blaming of Rohingya “terrorists”, has led to a public outcry and calls for her Nobel Peace Prize to be revoked. Her silence has been a slap in the face to those who fought so long and hard for her release from house arrest and a complete turnaround on the principles of human rights she has built her platform on, and it makes me fear for the country’s future.
Myanmar’s peace is volatile, and despite her lack of absolute power, I feel like Aung San Suu Kyi was a point of social cohesion. In a country full of ethnic tension, she was the one thing most people could agree on. Traveling around Myanmar, many people were happy to talk openly about politics and they beamed to know we had heard about “The Lady”. Even the mention of her name instilled a sense of pride. Wasn’t she supposed to be different?
Of course, we have no idea what might be going on behind the scenes or what kind of threats may have been made against her. Instead of a democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi has become more of a puppet to the military regime her party supposedly overthrew, and it seems highly likely that someone is pulling those strings. Yet her lack of condemnation, at the very least, hasn’t sat well with those who placed such faith in her as the moral compass Myanmar’s leadership so desperately needed.
Without Aung San Suu Kyi in the hearts of the people, where does that leave a country emerging into the global spotlight after decades of isolation and in a state of such political fragility?
I have read reports, however, and I’d love to hear from the people of Myanmar about this, that the persecution of the Rohingya has actually been a rallying point for the nation. That the ethnic Burmese majority is, in fact, largely in support of the military’s actions towards the Rohingya and Aung San Suu Kyi’s response. If this is indeed true, then maintaining contact with the people of Myanmar has never been more vital.
Where we might end up
What many tourists don’t know is that the Rohingya are not the only minority to be persecuted by the Burmese military. There are civil conflicts going on in various regions and some ceasefires only dangle by a thread. And while the Rohingya crisis requires urgent action, if we truly stand for human rights, the very rights we so vocally want to claim for the Rohingya, then we can’t be selective about which segments of the Myanmar populace are deserving of them. Saying ‘Screw Myanmar!’ because of military, Buddhist militia and government actions may send Myanmar back to the days of full-on military dictatorship and into a phase of ethnic and religious conflict that will set the country back decades.
While I don’t think boycotting tourism to the nation outright is a solution, I do believe we can use our tourist dollars in more strategic ways that don't threaten the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands and cutting Myanmar off from the world again. Our visits should focus on veering as much of our spending away from government hands and into locally-run businesses, and keeping an open dialogue with the people of Myanmar, sending a clear message to those inciting violence that the world is watching, and assuring those trying to fight it that we are fighting right there along with them.
What's your opinion on the Rohingya crisis and the idea of a travel boycott?
For those interested in further reading about travel boycotts, I recommend this post by World Nomads, Controversial Destinations: To Boycott or Not?
I welcome discussion in the comments, however, please keep the conversation civil. Any comments deemed to go against the constructive community space we have created here, will be deleted.