Tuesday Travel Tip: How to Travel Responsibly in Burma

Published June 26, 2012

Now that Burma has begun to take it’s first cautious steps towards democracy, is it okay to travel there? In this week’s Tuesday Travel Tip, I’ll be looking particularly at the question of traveling to Burma. Is it safe and ethical for foreigners to go there? And if so, how can we as responsible travelers, use tourism to support the local people? In the Lonely Planet’s 2010 Myanmar guide, it poses a serious question for all potential visitors:
Does your money, no matter how carefully spent, sustain a military dictatorship that has imprisoned political dissidents, used forced labour, cracked down on peaceful demonstrations (as was seen in September 2007) and seized foreign aid (most notably following the Cyclone Nargis in May 2008)? Or does isolating one of the world’s poorest countries not only deprive a burgeoning private sector of income, but also push the government into the arms of neighbours with bigger bankrolls and their own serious human rights issues?
As we looked at in last week’s blog on Myanmar’s recent political developments, 2012 has been a big year for the Burmese people. Whether or not his election was fraudulent, since U Thein Seintook office in 2011, he’s followed the UN guidelines for democratic reform, releasing many political prisoners, allowing Suu Kyi to run for office, and negotiating ceasefires with ethnic minorities. These changes have shifted the lens through which tourism is approached, and when the NLD rescinded their 15-year travel boycott in Fall 2010, the question evolved from “should I travel there?” to “how should I travel there?”
Young Buddhist Monks in Bagan
At the beginning of November, 2010 Win Tin, co-founder of Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), issued a momentous statement: “We want people to come to Burma, not to help the junta, but to help the people by understanding the situation: political, economic, moral—everything.” After supporting a 15-year travel boycott, times had changed to where isolation was doing more harm than good to the Burmese people. “For the outside world to see, to know our situation,” Win Tin continued, “that can help our cause a lot.” As a conscious traveler, how can we take up this call to action and endorse positive change by understanding and sharing the political, economic and moral situation of the Burmese people?
The Burma Campaign UK, an organization dedicated to promoting “human rights, democracy and development in Burma” lists the NLD’s official statement on tourism, released May 2011. The NLD explains that “while tourism could enhance the economic life of the people of the host country by creating new jobs, bringing in hard currency and raising the standard of living, it could have negative consequences if environmental issues are ignored and the meeting of different cultures and social values are not approached with sufficient sensitivity.” Although Burna’s political and human rights situation has improved vastly over the last year, many problems still exist within the tourism infrastructure. To understand and address the current issues facing Burma, I’ve broken them down into three main problems:
Intha man fishing on Inlay Lake
  • Environmental Concern. Tourism has lead to the destruction of native ecology, where the clearing of forests has been used to make room for large hotels, golf courses and resorts. Waste management is another major concern. A lack of proper regulations for garbage and sewage has threatened such ecosystems as Inlay Lake, the home of the leg-rowing Intha people. Pollution from fertilizer and human waste dumped into the lake has driven many fish species near extinction and threatened the livelihood of the local people.
  • Crony Alert. Big tourism related businesses are still owned by members of the government or their cronies. In fact, many large “private” companies are run by what the Lonely Planet describes as “government members on the sly.” Most of these cronies are involved in the gem and timber trade, but some have also infiltrated tourism. Tay Za, a notorious government crony and businessman, has founded two luxury hotel chains: Aureum Palace and Myanmar Treasure Resort. Government-owned hotels have historically imposed forced migration of locals to make room and forced labor for their construction.
  • Ethnic Conflict. While Sein Thein has extended the olive branch to most of the country’s ethnic minorities, recent bloodshed in the Myanmar’s Western state of Rakhine may impact the continuation of Myanmar’s democratic reforms. While these conflicts are not directly related to tourism infrastructure, the world is watching how Myanmar handles the conflict between Buddhists and the Islamic ethnic minority, the Rohingya, who have long been persecuted by the government. 
U Bein Bridge, Mandalay

No matter how hard you try, a percentage of the money you spend will inevitably go to the government, whose track record over the past 50 years has been more than questionable. However, it is possible to travel responsibly. As Burma’s era of isolation draws to a close, it’s our responsibility as travelers and global citizens to ensure that our actions, observations and interactions help and not harm the Burmese people. The best way to promote sustainable and ethical travel is to set an example with your own trip.

What to Avoid:
  • Avoid staying at large luxury resorts as they are likely owned by the government or their cronies and have contributed to sever environmental and human rights abuses.
  • Don’t give money to beggars. The NLD warns that indiscriminant handouts can create a population of beggar children and do not actually help the community at large.
  • Don’t travel in a large package tour. Most package tour providers are interested in making money, not promoting the well being of the local people. They tend to patronize government and crony hotels with questionable environmental and human rights records. And as Suu Kyi explained, “tourists who go around in ‘air conditioned taxis’ don’t see anything that’s going on in the country.”
  • For your own safety, unless you are an experienced journalist, stay away from areas of ethnic conflict. 
Bagan, Burma
What to Do:
  • Stay at small guesthouses and patronize local eateries. This will ensure that your money goes to benefiting the local people.
  • Spread your money around. Buy souvenirs from multiple vendors and eat at a different restaurant for each meal, not only will this enrich and broaden your own experience, but it will also help spread your money to benefit as many people as possible.
  • Talk to the local people. After years of isolation, the Burmese love meeting and talking to foreigners, whose presence shows that Burma and her plight have not been forgotten by the rest of the world. The best way to learn about Burmese culture, politics and everyday life is through interactions with locals. Indeed, cultural exchange was one of the main reasons the NLD has decided to advocate for tourism. However, approach political subject matter with caution. Even though the government has begun to democratize, criticizing the government may have negative repercussions on the local people.
  • Support programs that are environmentally and ecologically conscious; the NLD welcomes visitors who seek to ameliorate Burma’s troubles through their business.
  • Share your observations. Your trip doesn’t end when you return home. In fact one of the responsibilities of travelers to Burma is to share with the rest of the world what they have seen and learned in order to promote the continuation of democratic reform and pressure the government to protect its citizen’s civil liberties. 
Burma is one of the most, beautiful, diverse and culturally rich places in the world, but if you decide to visit, please take the NLD’s call to action to heart. If playing golf and relaxing at a resort is the vacation you desire, then please don’t go to Burma. Tourists have the ability to positively influence the country’s progression to democracy and this is a power that should not be taken lightly. Remember, your actions have consequences. By using your trip to set an example in sustainable and ethical travel, you can transcend ordinary tourism and forge a path towards positive political, economic and social change. 

The End of Isolation

Published June 21, 2012

Part II: Democratic Reform Arrives in Burma
Clinton and Suu Kyi in Yangon, photo copyright Paula Bronstein
For the last quarter century, the name Myanmar has conjured an image à propos to the pages of Heart of Darkness: a mysterious almost surreal place, marred by the iron fist of the military junta and synonymous with the worst human rights violations. The pariah of the western world, Myanmar’s isolation only seemed to add to its phantasmagoric landscape and after 2010’s fraudulent elections, which blocked international monitors and democratic hero Aung San Suu Kyi from participating, there seemed little hope of change. “After years of deadlock and stagnation, change is coming, but strictly on the junta’s terms,” the New York Times bleakly forewarned.
But April 1st’s election of Suu Kyi and other NLD representatives to parliament suggest that change may be coming, and this time on the terms of the people. On April 4th, after nearly 25 years of tense dealings, the Obama administration tentatively re-opened relations with Myanmar (also known as Burma), lifting the travel ban and allowing American NGOs in health, education and environmental conservation to enter the country. Vice President Hilary Clinton described Suu Kyi’s election as “an important step to the country’s transformation.” And in May, even more sanctions were suspended as the first American ambassador to Burma since 1990 was elected. “As an iron fist unclenches in Burma, we have to extend our hand,” said President Obama, to which Clinton added: “so today we say to American business: Invest in Burma.”
Since taking office in March 2011, Myanmar’s president Thein Sein has been making all the right moves to reopen Burma to the rest of the world. Releasing hundreds of political prisoners, negotiating peace talks and allowing Suu Kyi to run for office, all fall under the UN’s mandated list for the country’s democratic reform. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon defined three indicators of political change in Burma: “the release of all political prisoners, genuine national reconciliation and an inclusive electoral process.” While these requirements have yet to be fulfilled to their completion, Thein Sein efforts have been the most significant reforms in nearly 50 years of military rule.
In her 2011 meeting with Hilary Clinton, Suu Kyi stated, “if we go forward together, I am confident that there will be no turning back from the road towards democracy. We are not on that road yet, but we hope to get there as soon as possible with the help and understanding of our friends.” It’s possible we are seeing the tentative steps of a fledgling democracy, but Aung Din, former political prisoner and head of the US Campaign for Burma warns against lifting sanctions too soon: “if they do it very quickly, and make it too generous, it will only undermine the democratic forces in the country.”
Are we seeing real democratic change in Burma? The consensus is cautiously optimistic. After years of isolation and military mismanagement, Burma’s tanked economy requires foreign investment for revitalization, which may act as incentive for Thein Sein to continue with the necessary reforms. The Obama administration’s suspension of its sanctions are to act as incentive for Myanmar’s continued democratic reform, striking “an appropriate balance,” said Senator John McCain, “between encouraging the price of reform now unfolding in Burma, while maintaining sufficient leverage to continue pressing the Burmese government for additional progress.”

25 Years of Isolation

Published June 14, 2012

Part I: The History Behind the Burma Travel Boycott

Burmese Freedom Fighter Aung San Suu Kyi
April 2012 was a landmark month for Myanmar (formerly known as Burma); as ex-political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament, President Barack Obama dropped the 16-year US travel boycott against the country. Over the past 50 years, Burma had been one of the most isolated and mysterious places in the world. It’s diverse ecology, rich cultural history and gold-coated pagodas are juxtaposed against extreme poverty and human rights abuses. In 1962, less than 20 years after Burma’s independence from British colonial rule, General Ne Win seized power through a military coup, abolishing the parliament, setting up military junta rule, and closing Burma off to the outside world.  Visas were limited to 24hours and a 17-member “Revolutionary Council” was put in charge, using the guise of socialism to march the country into abject poverty (Lonely Planet).
By 1988, fed up with a continually disintegrating economic situation, the Burmese revolted, taking to the streets in huge pro-democracy demonstrations. On the 8th of August 1988 the government hit hard against the people, killing over 3,000 citizens in less than six weeks. Worn down by protest and bloodshed, the military junta promised to hold free elections in 1989. In response, the National League for Democracy (NLD) was quickly formed and, Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of revolutionary hero Aung San, became the spokesperson. The vote took place in 1990; the first Burma had seen in 30 years. With 82% of the votes, the NLD won in a landslide election, but the Junta refused to handover power and instead imprisoned the party’s main candidates, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who was  placed under house arrest, where she remained off and on until 2010. In 1991, Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, drawing international attention to the struggle and plight of the Burmese people.
It was in this environment of slaughter and oppression that the first western embargos against Myanmar were formed. In addition to economic sanctions, in 1995, Suu Kyi made an official statement against tourism to her country, asking international visitors to “visit us later,” qualifying traveling to Myanmar as “tantamount to condoning the regime.” “The bulk of the money from tourism goes straight into the pockets of the generals,” Suu Kyi stated in 1995. Those in favor of the boycott saw travel to Myanmar as simultaneously an economic and symbolic endorsement of the military junta. The Free Burma Coalition explained that “Nowhere else in the world have human rights abuses and tourism been so closely linked.” Indeed according to the Burma Campaign “local populations have been displaced… for the construction of hotels and other tourist facilities,” while forced labor has been used to construct these tourist accommodations. “The net result is economic hardship exacerbated by the abrupt breakdown of a traditional way of life and gross violation of human rights.” 
However, while the tourism boycott did help to cripple the economic power of the military junta, it also had adverse effects on the people it proposed to protect. In 2003, Zarni, the founder of the Free Burma Coalition, reversed his position on the travel boycott, stating that  “the whole boycott and sanctions campaign, in which I played a lead role, was a major strategic mistake” (qtd. in Lonely Planet). By stopping tourism, the Burmese people became more cut off from the outside world than ever before. Not only were they blocked off from international news sources, but the lack of international monitoring only increased the junta’s ability to continue down its path of oppressive human rights violations. Indeed, despite the efforts of the boycott and embargos, the junta still remain in control. In 2007, a protest against high fuel prices led by students and Buddhist monks led to violent crackdowns. Less than a year later, in 2008 Cyclone Nargis stormed through Yangon and the Irrawaddy Delta, killing a reported 85,000 people with an approximate 54,000 still unaccounted for. The junta did almost nothing to help its citizens during this crises and foreign aid was blocked for nearly three weeks (New York Times).
Would a lack of trade embargos and travel boycotts have made Burma’s situation different? It’s a question than can only lead to speculation. But as democratic change starts to corrode the framework of junta rule, it’s clear that the question of traveling to Myanmar needs to be reassessed. Perhaps shutting off a country from the rest of the world is not the best way to bring about political change. Take Cuba for example, where over half a century of a US embargo has done nothing to change the government and only harmed civilians.

In November 2010, the NLD retracted its support of the travel boycott, but despite the country’s recent advancements, Burma still has a long road to democracy. The question is no longer whether or not to travel to Burma, but rather how to travel there? Is there such a thing as responsible and ethical travel? Can your trip make a positive difference on the country and its people? In its 2010 Myanmar guide, the Lonely Planet cites Suu Kyi’s statement about conscious tourism: “Visitors to the country can be useful, depending on what they do, or how they go about it,” she explains, “tourists can open up the world to the people of Burma just as the people of Burma can open up the eyes of tourists to the situation in their own country if they’re interested in looking.” But, she continues,  “tourists who go around in ‘air-conditioned taxis’ don’t see anything that’s going on in the country.”

War Photography for Peace

Published June 7, 2012

Nick Ut photographed by Tim Mantoani

In May a small group of Santa Barbara high school students gathered in Hope Ranch over nems and Vietnamese curry to reflect on their March tour through Vietnam. Their trip had been extraordinary. Armed with cameras and critical minds, these students revisited the site of the Vietnam War’s famous photograph of Kim Phuc (the “Girl in the Picture”) with the very man who captured it: AP photographer Nick Ut. The photo depicts a naked 9-year old girl as she runs down Route One screaming, her body ablaze from a napalm attack. The picture won Nick Ut the Pulitzer Prize, made the cover of Life Magazine and shocked the world by exposing the horrific human cost of war. While in Saigon, ABC journalists David Ono and Jeff MacIntyre met up with Nick and PWT students to document Nick as they relived the events of that fateful day, visiting Kim’s family home, the Coadai Temple and the infamous Route One, where Kim and Nick first met.
Now comfortably assembled in a living room in central California, Nick retold his story and discussed his relationship with photography. Nick recalled the moment of the photograph. Kim was running down Route One away from the firebomb. Here clothes were completely burned off and she was calling out for water. As Kim approached him, Nick put aside his camera, got her water, then rushed her to the hospital. He was worried she would die at any moment and it wasn’t until he had secured her medical attention that he returned to Saigon to develop his film. Nick risked missing his deadline to save Kim’s life and continued to check on her while she was in the hospital. Today, Nick’s relationship with Kim is stronger than ever. “We are like family,” he explained, “I call her every week.”
But why should we care about photojournalism or Nick’s story? Can a picture really galvanize people into peace? For Nick the most important part of his photography is the human aspect, and it’s his ability to empathize with his subjects that makes his photos so powerful. Tomorrow (Friday, June 8th) will mark the 40th anniversary of Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning image.  The photo defined the Vietnam War and is still used today to stop the use of Napalm, which is now illegal in most countries, including the United States. As Nick Ut has proven, a camera can be a far more powerful weapon than bullets or bombs. Rather than continuing down a path of senseless destruction, photos have the ability to positively transform the world and stop this trajectory of violence. 
The story of Nick and Kim is not one of war, but one of peace. As photojournalist James Nachtwey explained, “In a way, if an individual assumes the risk of placing himself in the middle of a war to communicate to the rest of the world what’s happening, he’s trying to negotiate for peace. Perhaps that’s the reason for those in charge of perpetuating the war do not like to have photographers around.” Watching young students look at these images and travel across the world to engage in these questions is perhaps the most inspiring aspect of war peace photography. Nick Ut’s image had roused young ambassadors of peace; a generation dedicated to exposing and responding to the difficult and human questions of an increasingly complex world.  

Tuesday Travel Tip: Ethical Travel Photography

Published June 5, 2012

Student traveler in Vietnam

I’d been living abroad in Vietnam for three months and was having one of those days were the cacophony of a foreign culture was starting to grate on me. I had reached that point of romanticized nostalgia for the states that my very gut throbbed for home. I was whining to my friend over Skype about my homesickness, when he asked me a question that gave me pause: “why do you travel?” It was so simple. It seemed like the most obvious question to ask myself before moving to a different continent, but I had to admit I had no idea. Why do I travel? I must think there is some implicit value to the experience, but why was I doing it? What was the value? And how could I get the most out of it?
When I sat down to write this travel tip on ethical travel photography the same question popped up again: why travel? Before you can be a responsible photographer, you first need to be a responsible traveler. And in order to do that you need to ask yourself: what is it that I am trying to get out of this travel experience and how can I document my experience in a way that is accurate and beneficial? These are difficult questions to answer because there is no one right response. People travel for a variety of reasons and individual interests and experiences will influence those. But over the years, I’ve noticed a fundamental, reoccurring theme: travel is about gaining new perspectives, about learning how other people live and about humility (realizing that your way isn’t the only or necessarily the “right” way). Having respect for the people and place you are visiting is essential in order to gain these insights. And when it comes to taking photos, respecting the humanity and cultural norms of the place you are visiting is key.

So how do we translate respect into our photos? In an attempt to answer this question, I’ve broken ethical photography down into a handful of guidelines, none of which are set in stone, but instead can be used to assess situations when abroad and make the final decision of whether or not take the picture.
Bagan, Burma
Ask permission before you snap a photo. Human beings are not objects and they shouldn’t be treated as simply part of the scenery. How would you feel if a stranger walked up to you, shoved a camera in your face, snapped a couple pictures and then took off? Unless you’re at a large public event where people expect to be photographed, talk to the subject and make sure you can take their picture. If there’s a language barrier make an effort with sign language, gesturing to your camera. The camera can also be used to build relationships with people. If you take someone’s picture, then show it to them. Use your photography as a means of interacting and understanding the people and the culture you are visiting; this will make both your pictures and your time abroad more meaningful.
Don’t pay for pictures. Especially in underdeveloped countries, you might be asked for money in exchange for a photo. While this might seem like a tempting exchange, Ethical Travel’s Katia Savchuk warns against it. Savchuk references Explorer Worldwide’s Maz Linvingston, who explains that rather than giving back to the community, paying people to take their picture turns travel photography into “a kind of prostitution.” It also transforms what could have been a cultural exchange into a business transaction, creating a staged picture that does not honestly depict the situation or lives of the people.
Respect no photography signs. If there are signs that say no photos, don’t snap any. Taking pictures at important religious sites, for example, demonstrates a lack of respect for the culture you are visiting. Remember you are in a foreign country. This isn’t your home; you don’t know all of the taboos or understand the subtleties of social relations. In this case, err on the side of caution.
Father and son in Kedougou, Senegal
Build relationships with the people you’re photographing. The best way to photograph people is to develop a trusting relationship with them. If you have the leisure to be spending an extended amount of time with a family or group of people, the emotional bond you create with them will enrich your photographs. The more people become comfortable with you, the more willing they will be to let you and your camera into their lives. Not only does a human bond make the photographs more meaningful to you, but they will also be more honest in their depiction of a person’s life and culture.
Photograph honestly and capture diversity. A photograph is a simplification of a complex landscape. Each photo you take tells a short story. It is your responsibility as a photographer to make sure that the stories you are telling are as accurate as possible. When photographing your travels, try to document the diversity of the culture rather than focusing on one thing; this will help you to understand the complexities of the place your visiting and keep an open mind.
Join the discussion! We’d like to hear from you. What do you think about photography and ethics? Post your insights in our comment section.