Friday, July 02, 2010

Myanmar? Burma? Burma? Myanmar?

The first question that arises when you consider visiting the country west of Thailand is: what the heck do I call this place? Myanmar is the name given to it by the junta who have ruled it with an iron fist since 1988. On the other hand, Burma is the colonial label stuck on it by the British, a corruption of the name of the ethnic-majority Bamar, and therefore not really ideal either.

The second question is: should I go? Activists have promoted a tourism boycott against The Country That Shall Not Be Named since the mid-90s, spurred by statements from resistance hero Aung San Suu Kyi, who argued tourism profited the oppressive regime and encouraged it to create tourist destinations using forced labor. But there has been a steady push against the boycott by activists who argue that it hurts ordinary residents and further isolates the country.

Young nuns, near Hsipaw
Here's why I decided to go:

In recent years the government has loosened its grip on the hospitality industry. There are more private guesthouses to stay in so you aren't renting directly from the regime. Furthermore, tourists are no longer required to buy $200 in currency directly from the government when they arrive. In fact, we never changed money at an official exchange office, or even SAW an official exchange office.

Suu Kyi herself has recently been quoted as softening her position on tourism, although the statement is apocryphal since it comes via an unnamed source.

But mostly, I just think it's enlightening to see the place you live in through someone else's eyes. When I was growing up in Northern Virginia, I was always baffled by the hordes of tour buses lining up in front of Mount Vernon Plantation. To me, it was just that big house up the road. The history books said it was important because George Washington once lived there, but what really proved its significance to me was the large numbers of people willing to brave sticky summer heat, sunburn, mosquitoes and $5 Cokes just to go look at the place.

Conversely, when I moved to an old paper mill town in northern New Hampshire, I was amazed at how the local people viewed their hometown. I thought - and still think - it was one of the prettiest places I'd ever been: a valley bisected by a tumbling river and framed by three mountain ranges. People born and raised there, though, mostly saw a struggling mill, a decrepit downtown and a shrinking population. They were surprised anyone wanted to come see the place, never mind move there.

Thus, tourism itself, for all its flaws, carries an important message: this place is on the map. It's beautiful, exotic, interesting. People will put up with hardships (in Burma, significant hardships) just to come see it. It counteracts the isolation imposed by repressive regimes and buttresses people's sense that their country deserves better.
Statue, Bagan Historical Area

It's true I don't feel great about certain taxes and fees going to the government. On the other hand, I wasn't thrilled when I discovered my US tax dollars were funding secret torture facilities, either. The world is full of horrors and it's hard to keep your hands completely clean.

I didn't have one of those dramatic moments you're supposed to have in a place like Burma -- you know, grasping someone's hand and murmuring "One day you shall be free! The whole world is watching!" Instead, I raved about the food, told people they had beautiful babies, gawked at amazing temples, shared in the hideous discomforts of local transportation, practiced English with those who wanted to, spent money at small local businesses, and laughed at the occasional political joke. And now I'm going to tell you all about it.

Is that enough? Maybe. I think so. I hope so.

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