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The Lady Said “Stay Away” But I Went to Myanmar Anyway; Here’s Why

Monk in Myanmar
A monk in Myanmar.

The Lady had said: “Don’t come to visit my country.” I went to Myanmar anyway, no lightly-made decision considering that the Lady is Aung San Suu Kyi. The Nobel Peace Prize winner has endured rigid house arrest—and worse—for many years but has never flagged in urging overthrow of the repressive military junta that has ruled Myanmar since 1988 (when it was known as Burma). She urges travelers to stay away and thus not support the junta.

Before traveling to Myanmar, I asked myself some tough questions: Would the money I spend help the junta retain power? Could my presence, and that of other travelers and the media, help deter the generals from their practice of human rights violations? Might seeing conditions first hand enable me to make some contribution to improving the situation?

Dozens of countries have governments that fall short of the standards of freedom we associate with the U.S. All too often, our government isolates such countries. The U.S. has, for example, no ambassador in Myanmar. Does that improve the situation? Millions of people assume so and wouldn’t consider visiting them.

In 2003, President Bush imposed new sanctions on the theory that reducing its access to hard currency would motivate the junta to become democratic. The U.S. State Department now reports that, as a result, 40,000 workers in the garment business immediately lost their jobs and another 60,000 probably will. Bush’s action also made the use of credit cards impossible, sharply reducing spending by tourists.

Nevertheless, Myanmar trades freely with India, Singapore, Thailand, and China. In other words, Myanmar is even less isolated by U.S. sanctions than was Cuba.

In the Bush playbook, the choices seem to be indifference, tough sanctions, or invasion. Strategies such as engagement and negotiation are reserved for more powerful countries, such as China. Following imposition of sanctions, tourism dropped sharply.

At one time or another during the past 20 years I’ve traveled in China, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Chile, Argentina, and Guatemala when each was a pariah in the Western world. I could not see how it benefited me or anyone else to remain ignorant of the facts on the ground. In every case I came away with a much deeper understanding of the nature of the conflict. My visit put human faces on what was at stake and made it real, motivating me to get personally involved. I spoke and wrote and contributed.

I believe that travelers carry torches that can illuminate a country. Their light may not reach the darkest corners, but the government is very aware of their presence—and is affected by it. In Myanmar, I was told more than once that the explanation for the absence of military personnel on the streets is that the government wants to improve its image. “Tourists keep the soldiers behind the fence,” is the way one person put it. Still, more people sit in the stands to watch Stanford play football on three fall weekends than visit Myanmar in a year. More torches are needed.

The incumbent government is deeply flawed. Still, while it stiffly resists orders from abroad, it may be vulnerable to the influence of free international visitors walking the streets.

The government on Myanmar owns or controls major industries, but it’s not the government that benefits financially from tourism. It’s people who work in restaurants and hotels, crafts markets, bus companies, and travel agencies, virtually all of which are privately owned.

The traveler who doesn’t go out of his or her way to antagonize the government is unlikely to encounter any personal danger from it. With respect to risk of theft or mugging, issues concerning travels worldwide, I felt completely secure. Further, there are few places on this planet where people on the street are quicker to look you in the eye and smile.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been uncompromising in her support of isolation as a pressure tactic and many have supported that strategy. Yet after more than two decades, there is no evidence that isolation has been effective. She is wise but not infallible. With great respect, I believe that in this case she’s mistaken.

Myanmar rewards the traveler: the thousands of pagodas of Bagan, the drive north from Mandalay across the highlands, boat trips on Inle Lake, the constant unforced friendliness. There are few destinations left that have yet to enter the 20th century, let alone the 21st. Myanmar is one. Still, I will remember that most of its 50 million people live without freedom and, having been there, I can add my voice on their behalf.

Given time constraints, a visitor to Myanmar will see only part of the country and must interpret what he or she sees. With that caveat, I do not hesitate to say go: experience, carry a torch, be alert, respond. Aung San Suu Kyi deserves our help.

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