The other day, I was scrolling through Instagram…

When I came across some snaps of people on Ngapali Beach. If you’ve never heard of Ngapali before, it looks absolutely stunning. And if you haven’t heard of it, you’ve probably heard of its state – Rakhine State in Myanmar (Burma). The very one in the news right now for the violence being committed against its Rohingya people.

Reading the news, phrases like “human rights abuses”, “atrocities” and “ethnic cleansing” are used to describe this crisis. Entire villages have been razed and a huge humanitarian crisis has been created. All of this at the hands of the government, or at least the military, of which the government does not have effective control.

So it’s fair to say these pictures shocked me. My first reaction was one of anger, thinking doesn’t these ignorant people know what’s happening nearby?

It was just a week before that my three-year-old son, ever the curious traveller, had been watching the Top Gear special where they drive trucks through Burma, and he’d asked, “Mummy, can we please go there?” Without giving it a second thought, I solemnly replied, “we can’t go right now because Burma is being mean to Rohingya people”.

But is it right to just boycott?

In December 2013, I was working for a major tourism company that specialised in tours to Egypt. Trips to Egypt were a backbone of this company and they had a lot of staff on the ground there. The Arab Spring had already hurt tourism numbers in Egypt, and then an Australian journalist, Peter Greste, was arrested for reporting news that was “damaging to national security”.

Letters and emails came in from concerned people telling us we had no choice but to boycott Egypt; a pretty difficult thing to do when you have staff on the ground who depend on you paying their wages. But the argument was that we couldn’t, in good conscience, support a country that would imprison one of our own on potentially trumped up charges that diminished democracy and press freedom.

The idealistic, social justice warrior 25-year-old me agreed. But our Managing Director didn’t.

To our MD, it was quite simple really.

The first thing to go in a closed State is tourism. When you have a flourishing tourism industry, you have thousands of foreigners observing your society and going home to tell people about it (and these days, posting their impressions all over social media or on blogs like this one). That’s great in a country that relies on its tourism industry and feels it has nothing to hide. But if you don’t want the outside world questioning your practices, you limit tourism (an extreme example of this is North Korea). To our MD, shutting down Egypt operations in order to send some kind of message to the Egyptian government would essentially be giving them what they wanted: more power to control the narrative. And it’s under these circumstances that a government gains too much power and could build the oppression of its citizens.

Burma, of course, is not Egypt.

Every situation is unique and there is no question that the predicament Burma finds itself in is deeply complex. I’m not here to espouse a solution because frankly, I wouldn’t know where to start.

But I do know tourism shines a light on the happpenings of a country’s politics and society, while often managing to remain somewhat apolitical itself. Without any tourism, governments could do what they want with little oversight or publicity and that’s where the danger lies.

The other thing tourism encourages is the interaction between cultures and individuals of different circumstance. When we travel, we support local businesses when we stay in independent hotels or guesthouses, or eat at local restaurants. Even staying at the bigger chain hotels allows locals to earn a wage. When we strike up a conversation with a local we have the opportunity to share their insight. When tourism goes, so do these things and it’s the locals who suffer.

Should I boycott Burma?

So scroll Instagram and take the images you see with a grain of salt; I think by now we’ve established a lot of it isn’t real. But I think we should consider the background decisions that would have been made before taking those photos. Though you and I may be reticent to travel to Burma lest we be seen to support the current situation, let’s think of who hurts the most from a drop in tourist numbers – the locals.

And that’s why, though it goes against my initial instinct, if you ask me “should I boycott Burma?” I’d say no, please don’t. Go, see this incredible country, talk to the locals, and tell everyone you know about it when you get home.

 

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Should I Boycott Burma

 

21 Comments

  • Mel
    Posted April 8, 2018

    Such a great and insightful post. It’s a difficult thing to think about and your right everyone’s first reaction is to boycott but this will affect the locals more than the governments.

    • Amelia
      Posted April 9, 2018

      Thanks so much Mel! I’m glad you agree; I was waiting for a bunch of people to tell me how wrong I am ?

      I can see why people gravitate towards a boycott: they hate the thought of condoning the violence that’s happening. But when we stop thinking of the actual people involved in favour of ideology, that’s when we’re in danger of losing our humanity.

  • Hayley
    Posted April 8, 2018

    I always think of the locals and how a boycott would effect them. I’ve done enough travelling too see how much locals rely on tourism. Excellent, thought provoking post x

    • Amelia
      Posted April 9, 2018

      Thanks Hayley! It’s so true, it’s a big industry and it does a lot, both for the economy of a country but also for transparency.

  • Carol
    Posted April 8, 2018

    You are absolutely correct it is always the locals who suffer and some of what is happening is very sad but it is also difficult to know how much is true. We live quite close to Burma and I know people who are travelling and who have and we did a short trip and all was ok …Always hard to call but I always go by foreign office guidance regarding travel.

    • Amelia
      Posted April 9, 2018

      Thanks for your insight Carol! You’re right, foreign office advice generally errs on the side of “everything is fine, except in Rakhine State” at the moment. So there isn’t really a safety concern in Yangon, Bagan or any other particularly touristy spots – other than perhaps Ngapali because it’s in Rakhine. But it definitely concerns me that when people do go, we’re only hearing these insta-perfect stories.

      So I respect why people would boycott, but I also don’t think it’s the solution.

      On a separate note, would LOVE to hear about your trip!

  • Fancy
    Posted April 9, 2018

    It is such a tough one. I cannot say the right thing to do. I am just horrified that these atrocities can take place xx I also agree with Hayley. The innocent locals could be massively effected by a boycott x

    • Amelia
      Posted April 9, 2018

      That’s the hardest part, but also the best part. I like to see people honestly acknowledging that there’s no clear cut solution, and that the situation is so complex. I can’t stand people sitting back saying “it’s easy, just do this!” It causes more problems than it solves x

  • Josy A
    Posted April 9, 2018

    This is a really thought provoking message, but now I think about it, your managing director has a good point.

    The whole situation is hideous though, and if you do go, I still think you should be careful about what you share on instagram. I mean it must be horrible for people who have just fled to see photos of tourists frolicking on beaches where their families were attacked so recently!!

    • Amelia
      Posted April 9, 2018

      Exactly Josy! Like I said in the post, my instinct was just to not go. But it’s not about me, and my judge me won’t make a difference. But getting there and participating in the tourism industry and shining that light actually could.

      What’s so distressing to me about the situation is that there isn’t a clear answer. It’s easy for us armchair politicians to say it’s simple, but the Myanmar political system is very different and they’ve recently come out of decades of military junta. The Burmese population as a whole don’t recognise the Rohingyas, so systemic racism is a huge problem. That means any action the government did take would be hugely unpopular and when you have a leader who has fought so hard for democracy, she is going to be pretty reticent to rock the boat with her people. Not to condone any of it, I just want to acknowledge that it’s really tricky.

      So yeah, I also don’t think flirting about without a care in the world and snapping beach selfies to put on instagram is the way to go about it either ? but if people still go, and actually get stories of the locals heard, that could be a good place to start. What I’d like to see is some Rohingya stories and cultural education emerging, but that’s really hard too when everything is so volatile.

  • Erin - Unbound Roots
    Posted April 9, 2018

    Wow, Amelia! What a beautiful, well thought-out, informative post you have written. I have been unaware of what is happening in Burma until now. Such a sad state for the locals. Thanks for informing everyone of this. xx

    • Amelia
      Posted April 9, 2018

      Thank you do much Erin. I didn’t go into any detail in this post because it’s really complex and it wasn’t quite the point, but it’s a really troubling situation and I’m so glad to hear I’ve made someone aware who wasn’t previously. We in the West can sit back and decry the Myanmar government for not taking action but there is far more to it than that. So sometimes rather than just judging we need to look at all the facts and make the best decision we can, knowing that neither option is perfect. x

  • Rachael Stray
    Posted April 22, 2018

    You are so spot on here. It will be the local people who suffer and it can go on for years.

    • Amelia
      Posted April 22, 2018

      Thanks Rachel! Yes exactly. We always forget who suffers for our ideology.

  • Lorelle
    Posted April 22, 2018

    Totally agree with you and all the other lovely bloggers who have commented on this post, Amelia. Go and see this beautiful country and support the people who live there and enjoy all it has to offer us as tourists. Xx

    • Amelia
      Posted April 23, 2018

      Thanks so much Lorelle!

  • Cherie
    Posted May 31, 2018

    Very thought provoking. It’s a hard decision, the locals are the ones affected when we stop bringing them tourism money. But we do not want to give any support to a dangerous government. I do think going, supporting the locals and then sharing your experience with others around the world can be helpful too.

    • Amelia
      Posted June 1, 2018

      Thanks Cherie! To a certain extent I kiiiind of understand the Burmese leadership (though I do not agree with their decisions on any level). They are in a sense between a rock and a hard place because of the systemic racism against the Rohingya within the whole country. The feeling is that doing something would be political suicide and Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t spend decades under arrest to give that all up. BUT how can you stand by and let this happen to people?! It’s just awful.

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