Click on the video below for a typical scene in the daily life of the Burmese people.
While world media attention has focused a considerable amount of attention on the conflicts of Burma’s Southeast Asian neighbors Thailand and Vietnam, what goes on in Burma certainly falls off the international radar screen. The situation, I’ve learned, deserves our attention.
The Burmese Plight
Since 1962 Burma has been ruled by a ruthless military regime. Under the socialist ruling party, the government controls every aspect of Burmese life. While generals and military family members lead privileged and often luxurious lifestyles, the Burmese people live with little hope and in constant fear.
The human rights violations under Burma’s military regime are appalling. Forced labor, human trafficking and child labor are common. Sexual violence, including rapes and sex slavery, is widespread. The media is controlled by the government and internet censored for the small minority of people with access to a computer. The government keeps a watchful eye on everyone with an army of secret informers. Speaking out against the regime is a death sentence.
Such intense control is enforced that the Burmese can’t have any non-family members stay overnight unless registered and approved by the government. Moreover, permits are required to purchase basic amenities like mobile phones, driver’s licenses and television satellites. The permits are so costly that these basic items are out of reach for most Burmese people.
Life for the Burmese is simple and hope for getting ahead or bettering one’s situation fruitless. A guy renting a bike for a dollar a day waited outside our hotel each day for the small chance we’d take him up on his offer. Our rickshaw drivers would wait two or even three hours outside a café or restaurant for us to finish our meal so they could make the extra dollar to bring us home. They are anxious to work, desperate to make a living but limited options leave them paralyzed.
In the 1980’s, a ray of hope for Burma’s future came from a poised, dignified woman by the name of Aung San Suu Kyi. She became the leader of the Burmese democracy movement. Fearing an uprising, the military regime locked Aung San away. She’s spent the past twenty years under house arrest, isolated from her people, her children and the rest of the world.
On our visit we witnessed first-hand the state of fear in which people live. The anxiety and paranoia are palpable. When politics came up in conversation, they were hesitant to even make reference to Aung San Suu Kyi. Instead they referred to her as ‘the lady,’ with eyes racing around to see if anyone was listening. The future looks stark.
To Go or Not To Go
To travel to Burma or not, that is the question. Many critics argue visiting the country as a tourist condones the military regime and feeds the military’s pockets. Consequently, Burma receives a small amount of tourists each year.
Wrestling with the issue ourselves, we found there are ways to travel to Burma without “feeding the tiger.” While you can’t avoid paying the $US20 visa fee to enter the country, you can ensure money goes directly to local people by spending it at local markets, taking local buses and eating and staying in locally-run restaurants and guesthouses. The responsibility is up to you to spend money wisely, but if you’re adamant about it going to the right hands, it will.
For us, visiting Burma as a tourist brought the plight of the Burmese people into our consciousness. By helping to put the issues of Burma on the international radar screen tourists may hold the key to opening up this beautiful country.