When we started taking clients to Myanmar, it felt like truly historic times. Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s iconic democrat and human rights activist, had finally been released from years of house arrest imposed by the oppressive military junta that had controlled the country since the early 1960s. She amended her long-standing request for an international boycott of tourism to Myanmar, and encouraged small groups and independent travellers to come and see what was going on with their own eyes.
The country opened up to international influence in a way that was fascinating to observe, and Myanmar stepped self-consciously onto the world stage to begin its transition from forty years of virtual isolation towards, let’s hope, prosperity and freedom for its long-suffering people.
In 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi was given a prominent position in Myanmar’s government, but the Rohingya crisis of 2017 has left the world waking up to the fact that Ms Suu Kyi does not wield a magic wand. Hard work is needed for Myanmar to recover from the shocks it endured in the 20th century, and to resist the chauvinism that is dividing us all in the 21st.
It’s no easy task to steer a nation from autocracy to liberty, even when you really want to. It’s rare to find examples of democracy and freedom just ‘switching on’ after a period of absolutism. Myanmar’s army spent too much time consolidating its wealth, freedom and power-base to simply disappear overnight. The recent easing of control, and greater freedom of information, means that the rest of us can now see Myanmar’s internal rifts playing out. Nonetheless, the country has joined the global conversation, and it remains encouraging to see the nation working out how to develop a functioning infrastructure and forging relationships with world leaders.
If you’re ethically-minded and worried about travelling to Myanmar, we really recommend that you read up on the background, and understand that we do our utmost to make sure that all the income we introduce - to all our destinations in Asia, and not just Myanmar - goes directly to locals, not governments.
If you’re concerned for your own wellbeing, the UK Foreign Office warns against travel to specific areas where conflict has occurred, but the hostility in Myanmar has been between local religious and ethnic groups, and not directed against visitors.
We continue to hope that Myanmar won’t succumb to the temptations of mass tourism - it’s one of the most beautiful and astonishing places we’ve ever been, and its people amongst the most friendly, welcoming hosts we’ve encountered. To us that seems reason enough to keep on emphasising Aung San Suu Kyi’s original request - to visit only in small, independent parties, making sure we use hotels and services that don’t syphon money back into any questionable coffers.
As with anywhere, it’s still up to you whether or not you choose to go there, but our original advice remains the same - we encourage you to read up, weigh up, and thoughtfully - but seriously - consider it.