Why Travel To Myanmar?
In late 2017, we decided to visit Myanmar for a two week Christmas/New Years vacation. We decided upon Myanmar, really, because it is a destination that not many tourists visit. For us, after being on the road for two years and exploring more than 17 countries in that time, the thought of going to an entire country that was "off the beaten path" was exhilarating. We had heard from many backpackers and expats that Myanmar was truly a gem of a country, hidden in plain sight of the world. From the welcoming government, the locals who will go out of their way to help you, to the mouthwatering food, lush nature, gorgeous temples and pagoda's, and amazingly cheap prices, Myanmar has it all.
You Went To Myanmar? Was It Safe?
When we got back from our trip, these were the questions we were constantly asked, from our family, friends, and other backpackers and expats. Let us cut straight to the chase, YES, Myanmar is a safe country to travel to and within.
Do You (we) Support The Rohingya Conflict?
No. Of course we don't support the terrible expulsion and treatment of an ethnic people. We wholeheartedly disagree with the way the country (or rather, military) of Myanmar is handling the situation and how the Rohingya people are being treated, detained, murdered, separated from their families, and expelled.
Detailed in the rest of this post, we explain the current Rohingya conflict and the role that both Myanmar and Bangladesh play. Additionally, we give a very detailed, albeit brief, history of the politics of Myanmar, and why you should travel to this amazing Southeast Asian country.
Current Political Conflict: Rohingya Persecution In Myanmar
The more than one million Rohingya Muslims are described as the 'world's most persecuted minority'.
Who are the Rohingya?
The Rohingya are a majority Muslim ethnic group, who have lived in Myanmar for hundreds of years.
Where in Myanmar are the Rohingya?
Nearly all of the Rohingya in Myanmar live in the western coastal state of Rakhine.
Where do the Rohingya come from?
During the time of British rule, many people migrated to the country for work. These laborers came from India & what is now known as Bangladesh. However, after gaining independence in 1948, the new government viewed the migration that took place during British rule as illegal and refused citizenship to many Rohingya.
What is the conflict?
Aung San Suu Kyi and her government does not recognize the Rohingya as an ethnic group or citizens, but rather as terrorists. In October of 2016, violence broke out between the Rohingya people and the military. The military accused the Rohingya of starting the violence by attacking and subsequently killing 9 police officers at a border outpost near the Bangladeshi border. The military responded to the 'terrorist' group much like the state of Israel reacts to attacks from Palestine - with brutal force, disregard for civilian life, and without fear of international response. Since 2016 the military has been accused of killing more than 1,000 Rohingya, displacing tens-of-thousands more, and burning entire villages to the ground, leaving the wounded to die in the blaze.
Why are the Rohingya stateless?
Myanmar: In 1982, Myanmar passed a new citizenship that specified and recognized 135 different ethnic groups - the Rohingya were not included. As a result of the law, their rights to study, work, travel, marry, practice their religion and access health services became restricted.
Bangladesh: Similar to the government of Myanmar, the Bangladeshi government also see's the Rohingya people as illegal immigrants. Most have never lived in Bangladesh and therefore are not legal citizens of the country.
What is being done to solve the problem?
Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi and her government entrusted former UN chief Kofi Annan with finding ways to heal the long-standing divisions in the region. However, many argue that this was just a way for Aung San Suu Kyi to "pacify the global public opinion and try to demonstrate to the international community that she is doing what she can to resolve the issue"...without actually resolving anything.
Bangladesh: Bangladesh has described the treatment of the Rohingya people in Myanmar as 'genocide', yet they are doing little to help or treat them any better. According to numerous news outlets, Bangladesh is refusing to let many Rohingya walk freely into the country. Their solution is to provide the Rohingya people a small, confined, holding camp, on an island that is prone to flooding and has even been called 'uninhabitable' by many Human Rights groups. Bangladesh has told Myanmar that they should "take their nationals back."
*It is important to note that Aung San Suu Kyi and her government do not have control or power over the military. The military acts independently from the rest of the democratically elected national government.
Understanding The Political History Of Myanmar
1824 - 1948: Myanmar, then called Burma, was ruled as a British colony.
1948: On January 4th, Burma achieved independence from Britain, and became a military ruled country, renamed the Union of Burma.
1989: The ruling military party changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar.
1990: General elections were held in Myanmar. The elections were won by Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party: the National League for Democracy (NLD). However, the military refused to recognize the results and continued to rule the country.
2008: After facing criticism from the West, Myanmar's military government agreed to rewrite the constitution and create the "Program of Reform," which allowed other political parties to participate in elections.
2015: Myanmar held elections again. The National League for Democracy won. Again, Aung San Suu Kyi was to become president.
However, Aung San Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from being president. Why?
1) Both of her sons are British citizens & according to a clause in the constitution no-one with children of another nationality can be president.
2) The constitution demands the president must have military experience - Aung San Suu Kyi has no such military experience.
If Aung San Suu Kyi won the election, why can't they just make an amendment to the constitution, allowing her to take power?
During the rewrite of the constitution in 2008, the military specified that it would always retain 25% of seats in both houses of parliament allowing the military power to veto any move to change the constitution.
How does Aung San Suu Kyi have Presidential power if she isn't President?
The NLD won the election. Because Aung San Suu Kyi could not be President, all the party had to do was find another suitable and likable candidate to work side by side with her. It would be through him and his legitimate presidency, Aung San Suu Kyi would maintain power. She stated that she "would rule from above” (by proxy).
How Does The Conflict Effect You?
To put it simply, it doesn't.
Are you supporting the oppression of the Rohingya if you travel to Myanmar? No. The only money that you spend that could potentially fund the military and this conflict, would be the money you pay for your visa. Other than that, all the money you spend at restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, on buses, or accommodation will go directly to the locals and their respective companies, not the government or the military.
Can I go into the Rakhine state? No. Access to this area is restricted and secured with 'border' crossings. This includes the media.
Is the Rakhine state the only conflict zone? There are a small amount of Rohingya in other areas of the country but the Rakhine state is where the majority of them are located. If there is conflict in other areas of the country, it too will be restricted to media and tourists.
Do the citizens of Myanmar support the military or oppose the conflict? Like the military, Aung San Suu Kyi and her government do not recognize the Rohingya as an ethnic group or citizens. Most citizens tend to agree with her. However, you can find opinions on both sides of the political spectrum that support and denounce the way the Rohingya people are being treated.
"Are we willing to live together with them? Of course, if they truly want to integrate with the native people and are willing to sing our national anthem. No country will accept 1 million + of refugees, especially a third world country like Myanmar [otherwise]. We are disappointed at the world medias for portraying us as evil with their one sided biased news like this."
- Pyie Sone, Myanmar National
Why You Should Travel To Myanmar
Myanmar has the power to surprise and delight even the most jaded traveler. You will be absolutely amazed by Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, even if you feel you are 'templed out' after traveling Southeast Asia. Stand in awe of the more than 4000 sacred stupas that are scattered across Bagan. Take hundreds of photos while enjoying a long boat ride down Inle Lake to watch the 'fishermen' perform their unique craft. Fly high over the city of Mandalay or Bagan in a hot air balloon during sunrise, and explore the Golden Rock Pagoda or Mount Popa.
If you want to learn more about traveling to or within Myanmar, check out our Myanmar Country Guide.
We give you a breakdown of how to enter the country & how to get around once you're there, what are the most popular things to do and see, accommodation recommendations, a budget breakdown, and some travel tips and helpful hints for this country.
“This is Burma...quite unlike any land you know about”
- Rudyard Kipling in Letters from the East