DESPITE the United Nations describing the current violence in Burma (Myanmar) as “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, there are currently no official sanctions against travelling to the country.
The Tatmadaw military is acting upon the premise that Rohingya Muslims are “extremists.” It has been accused of perpetrating mass killings, rapes and arson against the long persecuted minority which amount to crimes against humanity or even genocide, according to some.
The anti-Rohingya campaign has openly existed since 2012, one year after the start of Burma’s democratic transition.
More than 617,000 people have fled into neighbouring Bangladesh, creating a major humanitarian crisis. “Many people are arriving hungry, exhausted and with no food or water,” Mark Pierce, Bangladesh country director for the Save the Children aid agency, told The Telegraph.
The US Embassy in Myanmar reassured travelers there were no major risks to foreigners, but they do recommend avoiding the northern state of Rakhine.
Opinion is split among travel operators
Tour operators are still split in response about running trips to the country.
“We can easily move quickly to visit another destination,” tour operator Go Ahead Tours president Heidi Durflinger told Skift. “Our approach has been to cancel itineraries in similar situations in the past, but it’s a case by case thing with Go Ahead.”
Other travel operators, such as the Melbourne-based small-group coordinator Intrepid Travel, have not cancelled any of their scheduled tours to Burma.
The travel agent is closely observing local events and is conscious that cancelling planned tours could have a detrimental effect on the communities they visit. “It’s obviously horrible what’s going on in Myanmar, but we’re not calling for a boycott because we don’t see how that could help the local population,” Intrepid’s regional director for North America Leigh Barnes told Skift.
Most of Burma’s national income is created by the exportation of gemstones, such as rubies. However, tourism has played a significant role in the economy since the country allowed mass tourist access in 2008.
“We think that would hurt people in the communities we visit. But I remember seeing hotel rates triple in the three months after the country reopened to travelers six years ago and so far we see steady demand,” Barnes said.
Two of the most visited tourist attractions in Burma are in Rakhine State, where violence has disrupted normal life. The beaches of Ngapali are as pure as can be, with uninterrupted white powdered sands and luscious green forest, and the ancient ruins of the Kingdom of Mrauk U are rich in history.
Yet with the current forced exodus of the Rohingya taking place in the region, visiting these two tourist attractions is completely out of the question.
The moral conundrum
Despite the advice of tour operators and embassy announcements, the moral dilemma ultimately falls with the traveller.
Back in the 1990s, tour operators and travelers faced a similar conundrum. Despite sanctions that lessened the military’s grip on the country, the enforcers still had control over the state, which meant any revenue created by tourism would go directly to the military.
“The crude Visit Myanmar Year campaign of 1996 was the epitome of the Myanmar military trying to cash in on tourists,” deputy director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division Phil Robertson told Skift.
The country’s current affairs resonate with the those of the 1990s, and companies such as Responsible Travel – a UK-based booking site focused on showing travelers real culture and how their behavior impacts communities – have now boycotted the destination altogether.
Their reasoning for this? “It’s the only country in which the democratically elected leader, who was subsequently placed under house arrest, has requested an international tourism boycott,” said CEO Justin Francis in a blog post.
“We believe her wishes should be respected.”
A version of this article first appeared on our sister website Travel Wire Asia.