Before we came to Myanmar we had a long discussion whether to go or not. The crisis in the Rakhine State was constantly in the media and we obviously did not want to support the behavior of the military in Myanmar. Safety was not such a big concern for us since tourists are not allowed to enter the crisis area anyhow and pretty much all major tourist destinations are quite far away from Rakhine state.
To go or not to go?
In the end the key argument for us that won the debate was that if we do not go, we also do not help any Myanmar citizen whose livelihood depends on tourism. Who in Myanmar will actually notice that we did not visit out of protest? This is, however, still a tricky question. One strong argument in favour of not visiting is the strong signal this sends if many people cancel their trips. This is, by the way, what is currently happening. By far enough people are already cancelling their trip for everybody in Myanmar to realise that any crisis will have a bad effect on tourism.
“If we stay at home, this also does not help anyone in Myanmar who depends on tourism.”
For the above mentioned reason we decided to go anyway but tried to spend our money in a way that as much as possible ends up with the locals and as little as possible with the government. We think we (mostly) succeeded with our plan. It was not entirely possible to leave no money with the government, for the simple reason that as a tourist it is hard to figure out who owns what, even if you ask questions all the time. All tourists who enter some areas like Bagan and Inle Lake have to pay a scenic area entrance fee and most of this money goes to the government (where exactly nobody seems to know for sure). In Bagan for instance only 10% seem to go to conservation efforts. This figure might however be higher this year as many temples got badly damaged in last year’s earthquake and this year’s torrential rainfalls. The entire site is also applying for UNESCO World Heritage Status and thus has some management rehaul ahead. (By the way: The Inle Lake scenic area entrance fees are actually collected by a private company that had bought the rights to do so in an auction before the season started. That whole interesting construct is in essence a gamble on the tourist numbers.) For useful tips on sustainable travel in Myanmar check out: tourismtransparency.org
Still, we think we left nearly all our money with locally run guest houses, local restaurants, food stalls on the streets etc… Looking back, we are very glad we came and left some money with local communities because nearly everybody complained that this year there are up to 50% less foreign visitors this peak season – the obvious disadvantage of sending the government a message by not coming. This truly hurts the economy and many people are affected who are very far away from Rakhine and have no immediate political influence.
So what is actually happening in the Rakhine State?
If we are very honest with ourselves we have to mention that before we came here we were quite confused about the Rakhine crisis situation. Therefore we want to summarize a few aspects below on what we have sort of learnt about it over the last few weeks.
To begin with, the whole situation seems to be a lot more complicated than it is portrayed in Western media.
Our impression is that people in Myanmar are extremely cautious when talking about the Rakhine crisis. Some of our guides for example kept looking furtively over their shoulder to see if anybody would overhear them talking about it. There was nobody in sight so they talked about it a little bit. Several people also told us they would not speak about politics, especially not to foreigners. Myanmar may be a democracy now, but the scars of having a repressive government for decades cut deep for its people.
When it comes to the explanations we got about the situation we heard quite different opinions and fragmented stories. For example, there are prominent conspiracy theories that the Rohingya minority wants to undermine the entire state as well as attack Buddhism. Those are mostly spread by Buddhist nationalists, chief among them an extreme monk in Mandalay. Because his views on non-Buddhists are so intolerant he is sometimes called Buddhist Osama or Buddhist Hitler. There is even a documentary about him called The Venerable W. If you think about it rationally, the idea that one minority made up mostly of fishermen and farmers living in one of the poorest parts of Myanmar could uproot Buddhism and the entire state seems highly unlikely. We also heard that some media blames Muslims in general for all the fighting in Myanmar. A few years ago a big wave of anti-muslim sentiment swept over the country after fighting had been going on in Rakhine for a while. This year that did not happen, which many people told us they were very thankful for.
Creating a common “enemy” is a good tool to bond the other ethnic groups together, some of which have only recently been brought to negotiating tables. The long historic ethnic segregation in Myanmar is complicated and there seems to be still only a fragile balance and agreement in further afield areas. (There are other areas like Kachin and Northern Shan State with displaced people in Myanmar).
The media in Myanmar also seems to push the idea that the Rohingya, its insurgent faction ARSA to be more precise, wants independence and thus torched their own villages to make a point and garner international attention. A very plausible reason for this are natural resources. The Rakhine area seems to have some valuable natural resources as well as coveted access to the Indian ocean.
Another credible explanation of why the crisis keeps repeating itselft is that the Rohingya are visibly different, politically without major allies and thus a long used scapegoat in Myanmar and an excuse for the military to justify its own existence. A large military, which Myanmar has, also needs a reason to exist. Read the two book reviews by the Economist and the Irrawaddy (Myanmar English newspaper) on the book Myanmar’s Enemy Within, by Francis Wade.
We furthermore read a very interesting article in Myanmar`s English language magazine Frontier. (We were told this magazine is trying very hard to be as objective as possible when it comes to explaining problems in Myanmar. It usually infers interesting questions in their reporting, so if you want to know more about what is going on in Myanmar, read that magazine!) This particular article was tiptoe-ing around the crisis and pointing out that since no journalists were allowed in the area, who can really know what is going on? In the meantime restrictions for foreign volunteer visas are being tightened further so it becomes even more difficult to receive reliable information from Rakhine. In December apparently two journalists were arrested, who were trying to report from there.
To sum up, the main reasons for the crisis seem to lie somewhere between various different aspects of resources, independence, nationalism and a convenient scapegoat.
All we really figured out in passing through this country full of lovely people going about their everyday lives is that the reasons for the crisis are multi-layered, complex and not entirely clear for anyone there either. One sure thing is that peace for all people in Myanmar needs to be treated more seriously.