I’m not sure when or how my fascination with Burma began. I’ve always been interested in South-East Asia (I watched “The King and I” far too many times as a small child), and its fascinating, graceful cultures, which seem so much at variance with North America. I think, though, that the fascination with Burma was started when Mum first told me about Aung San Suu Kyi, known as ‘The Lady’ to the Burmese people. I was fascinated by her couregous bravery & strength in the face of all she has, and continues, to endure, and how she has managed to remain the focal point & guide for her people despite 17 years of house arrest. This, of course, lead me to discover more about the political situation in Burma, and then, its culture & peoples, including the plight of minority ethnic groups, especially the Karen/Kayin.
My heart bleeds for these people, who live in one of the most repressive states in the world, where any comment may get you arrested by the illegally-ruling military government, or help you to ‘disapear’, where forced labour is common, educational and medical standards are non-existent, STIs, drug & people trafficking is rampant, and a large amount of the population live in refugee camps or as illegal migrants in Thailand. I can’t read an article on the situation there without feeling either horrified or sick to my stomach.
This is a country where, to encourage tourism (the profits of which directly line the military juanta’s pockets), people are forcibly evicted from their land (without recompensation), and then forced to transform that same land into an exotic travel destination where rich people can sit in a five-star hotel literally built with tears & blood. Of course, most of these resorts are financed by drug traffickers who are hand in hand with the juanta and therefore both profit from the visitors & also cause even more suffering for the people of Burma through drug wars & addictions. And this isn’t even to mention the fact that both sex tourism & and drugs are popular reasons why visitors come to ‘boost’ Burma’s economy. How noble of these people to ‘help’.
Aung San Suu Kyi was once asked in an interview whether or not tourism might not help Burma become more democratic. She shot down the reporter, saying that tourism directly helped the juanta to retain its power & seem legitimate, and further, if he was suggesting that the Burmese people, whom won independence from Britain & then established a successful democracy, could learn something about democracy from visiting Westerners, he was both being patronizing and racist. As far as I can tell, most people don’t disagree with her on this view, even though the Burmese themselves are extremely desperate for tourism dollars. Even the guide books are torn on this- half of them refuse to publish, on moral grounds, guides to Burma, while others publish on the basis that, since people will go there no matter what, they should at least have SOME advice to help prevent them getting arrested, raped or ‘disappearing’.
Travellers that visit, too, face ridiculous difficulties in moving about the country, where bribing officals is a frequent necessity and past visitors have tales of up to nine different government departments being required to sign their papers before they were allowed to stay at a certain guest house or visit a region. These same visitors also are treated to having government spies trailing throughout their trip (just one of the many non-cheerful reasons the Burmese government requires you to get a travel Visa before coming), and if they discover you’re a journalist upon arrival or during your stay, you’re probably going to get treated to a first-hand exclusive on the appalling state of Burmese jails (chances on getting to publish it are slimmer).
By now, I’m sure that everyone reading this is horrified by my stated wish to go to Burma. At best, I’d pick up dysentery (and with the healthcare there, I’d better ensure first that my travel insurance included letting me be med-evaced to Bangkok), at worse no one would ever hear of me again. It’s morally wrong, the leader of the country, whom I have great respect for, has condemend travel there, my own governments have sanctions against Burma, and they would have a hard time getting me out of there if I even GOT the right to contact the nearest Canadian or British embassy (which, I am sure, is not IN Burma to begin with). You’re relatively safe if you go with a tour group, but you can be damn sure that, with said tour group, you won’t be contributing to the average Burmese OR getting to talk to them.
Which is why I would want to go to Burma with a humanitarian aid organization. I want to HELP, first hand. Let’s be honest, there’s not much that I can accomplish by writing this blog, even though, by the time people are done reading this, I might have convinced a few others never to go to Burma, or to find out more about giving aid to various organizations working in Burma/ Burmese Democracy groups, or corporations to boycott because they work in Burma despite their own home nations’ embargoes on trade. I’d go to Burma with an aid organization, both to help and so that I could experience the nation & its culture. And they need volunteers as teachers in charity schools & as carers in orphanages desperately. I couldn’t do the refugee camps, that I know- I don’t have the guts, and I’d be afraid to put myself in that much immediate danger- the camps are frequently victimized by government raids. And even then, it would be difficult to get around, to even get in or OUT of the country, and I’d have no way of communicating with the outside world- cell phones don’t work, international calling rates are exhorbitant (even if you can find a phone with the capabilities), hotmail & yahoo are banned & to get a letter sent you have to pay an ‘agent’ to ensure it isn’t just thrown out (and I’ll bet anyone good money that they’re read first).
That said, do I really have the guts to go to Burma? The sorry answer is no. Although I would love to see it, love to help, I’m terrified of what the Burmese are brave enough to put up with everyday. Now, some people might say this is because I’m not inconspicuous- that I’d stick out like a sore thumb (true), while the Burmese manage because they don’t. This isn’t true- in Burma, EVERYONE has to watch what they do & say, because of the spies everwhere. It’s a Orwellian police state. Not to mention that it only gets worse if you’re part of a group that the military are trying to ‘resettle’ (as in, resettle them through genocide).
So in truth, I’m weak. Faced with as many blessings & the security that I have, I don’t have the strength of character, the guts, to go there & risk my life. It’s one of the negatives of living in an established democracy – the possible inability to actually fight for what is right & necessary, instead of just having them handed to you. But that’s another blog entry. And it is why I revere Aung San Suui Kyi, not emulate her.
*Note: Burma is now ‘offically’ named Myanmar, but I refuse to call it that. The government that named it that (SLORC) seized & holds power illegally and thereforth has no right to rename the state. Further, as someone who believes in Burmese freedom of governence, and the rightful governence of Burma by the ELECTED National Democracy Part (NDP) under Aung San Suu Kyi, I follow her lead in what the country should be called. It may be ineffective in the grand scheme of things, but I refuse to give legitimacy to an illegal regime by calling Burma Myanmar.
image from www.orient-travel.ru.