What’s the Deal with Myanmar?

When I tell people I’m in Myanmar, I get a lot of confused reactions. People either don’t know much about the political situation, or if they do, are confused about how to travel there. Before I publish entries about my experience here, I figured I’d go through the facts and clear up any misconceptions

The Political Situation

I am committed to keeping politics out of this blog and although most of you know I work in that field, it’s important to me to keep my political career and travel writing career very separate. However, I think it’s important to understanding the country to know a bit about the political situation, so I’m including this very brief and generalized overview. Any inaccuracies I blame on the fact that this is supposed to be highly generalized.

Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is ruled by a military junta and has been since the late 1980s. For most of the past 25 years, there has been no freedom of speech, press, movement, or elections. Democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi spent over a decade under house arrest, and public figures were jailed frequently. Aung San Suu Kyi called for a tourism boycott to prevent money from going into the junta’s hands. Sanctions were put in place, preventing Western investment and development.

In recent years, the situation has changed drastically. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and was elected to parliament. Freedom of speech was gradually allowed. Journalists no longer had to submit their works to a censorship board. The travel boycott was officially lifted, and democracy activists now encourage tourists to come and interact with people here, who have been cut off from the rest of the world for a long, long time.

On the other hand, the situation is far from perfect. There are accusations of ethnic cleansing against the Muslim minority in the western part of the country, and it’s possible for the recent freedoms to be rolled back. Tourists are also fairly limited in where they can go. Some regions allow free travel, but much of the country is blocked off. As a result, I try to avoid spending money on government-owned companies, which include airlines and local beer. However, I feel that by spending my money on privately owned, local businesses I am investing in the development of the country.

 

The Traveling Situation

A very well-traveled friend of mine sent me an email recently. “I’d love to go to Myanmar!” she said. “I just don’t want to go on a tour and I hear that’s the only way into the country.”

Thankfully, that’s not the case. Although tourists are limited where they can go, and infrastructure isn’t on par with Thailand or Vietnam, Myanmar is easily traveled independently. Guesthouses are plentiful and there are even a few hostels. A privately-owned network of coach buses provide overnight rides to the major destinations. Most restaurants have English menus. Wifi, while slooooooow, is available in major tourist towns.

Another myth I heard before my trip was that I’d have a government minder, or the government would be keeping tabs on me somehow. I can’t speak for people who go into areas that are outside of the general tourist-permitted areas, or who come to work with activists, but I haven’t had any type of minder or government presence watching me. I do have to register with each hotel and on each bus ride so the government does know where I am, but that’s not something I find too outrageous. I’ve had to do that in other countries too. The government is just happy I’m here spending money.

Is Myanmar the liberal democracy of our dreams? No. But it’s a long way from North Korea, at least from a traveler’s perspective. And there’s a ton to do…for more on that, stay tuned!

 

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