Monday, July 23, 2012

Should I visit Burma?

 Burma's ancient architectue is as diverse as its people and culture: there are thousands of centuries-old temples and stupas in and around the city of Bagan.
By Rachel Harvey is the BBC’s Southeast Asia correspondent. Based in Bangkok , she regularly report on events in Burma.

Tourism in Burma has long been a thorny issue. The BBC’s Rachel Harvey examines the impact of recent political changes, while Tony Wheeler explains why he’s always chosen to visit.

In a speech given a year on from her release from house arrest, Nobel Prize-winning democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi said: ‘Looking back on the past year, I think I can say it has been eventful, energizing and to a certain extent encouraging.’ That could be a contender for understatement of the year.

Few people had high expectations when the old military regime handed power to a nominally civilian-led-but still military-backed-government in March of 2011. Yet recent development have persuaded many that the new leadership, under the presidency of a former general, Thein Sein, is serious about reform. Parliament has drafted new laws, including one permitting trade unions to be formed. Some previously blocked news websites, including that of the BBC, are now accessible from inside the country. Some political prisoners have been released, and the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi has decided to rejoin the official political system and contest by-elections.

There remain concerns, particularly with regard to human rights. Burma is still far from being a shining light of democracy and freedom, but there is now a definite momentum of change. One key motivation is a desire to pull Burma up from the depths of poverty in which it has languished for far too ling. In this respect, the country lags far behind its Asian neighbours-but it has huge potential in terms of natural resources and tourism.

The question is whether all sectors off its society would reap the benefits, rather than just a select few with connections to the government or military. There isn’t yet a coherent tourism policy, and the country is in transition. Consequently, there is a greater responsibility on the part of visitors to make themselves aware of  the latest political developments and to spread their custom widely.

Those in favour of responsible tourism in Burma suggest the following. Try to keep your money in the local economy by shopping at markets, using different taxis rather than the same driver every day, and sampling the sumptuous food and drink on offer in street cafes and traditional tea houses, rather than always  eating in your hotel.

And, above all, talk to people. There is a huge desire to engage with foreigners – Burma has been isolated for years, so there is a natural curiosity and appetite for information. Conversation I as valuable a contribution as anything else you can offer, but let locals bring up the subject of politics, not you.

Aung San Suu Kyi used to actively discourage tourism in her homeland because of the support it gave to a military regime that kept her in detention for the best part of two decades. Now, she welcomes visitors who want to understand what is going on in Burma and are willing to try to help improve life fort its people. So the onus is on us.

If you do plan a trip, do your research, keep your wits about you and go with an open mind and the determination to learn.

Why I went….

By Tony Wheeler is the co-founder of Lonely Planet. He published the first lonely planet guide to Burma in 1979,and has visited several times.

My Burma history goes way back. My first visit were in the ‘seven-day visa’ era of the 1970s. the first editions of Lonely Planet’s Burma guided book involved consecutive trips-you left the country after seven days, got a new visa and went straight back in again. Nobody ticked you off for going there – in fact, most people knew absolutely nothing about the place.

Then for more than a decade, I was regularly criticized for both visiting and publishing the guided book: ‘You encourage people to go there. That supports the awful military government. Shame on you,’ was the general message. I was even told – usually by people who had never been anywhere near Burma – that the general population would prefer that visitors didn’t turn up, and by staying away, we’d make the government realize how unpopular they were and come to their senses. I returned four times between 1997 and 2003, jus to check that I wasn’t completely mistaken and that the reality was indeed that visitors were welcomed with open arms by everyday Burmese people. They were. Quite apart from putting cash in the family bank account, visitors provided vial contact with the outside world, proof that they weren’t ignored and forgotten.

Twelve months ago, everything changed. Suddenly, visiting Burma was no longer politically incorrect. Having gone from pariah state to acceptable destination, it is bordering on ‘next big thing’ status. My Burmese friends are delighted. For years they’ve watched as tourism flourished in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – all closed-off states for long spells. Now they’re finding their place in the sun.

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