Over Christmas I discovered a fascinating read entitled Finding George Orwell in Burma. Written by Emma Larkin, a pseudonym for an American journalist born and raised in Asia, who fascinatingly studied the Burmese language at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
Before George Orwell became the famous 20th century author most people are familiar with, he was known simply as Eric Arthur Blair and in his younger years spent half a decade working in Burma (what was then part the British Empire in India) as an Indian Imperial Policeman. In her book, Larkin retraces Orwell’s path through the modern nation as a means of examining the country today, its culture, and its people. Larkin uses a pseudonym simply because she would be barred from ever reentering the country and possibly even arrested by the nation’s oppressive ruling military junta due to telling the truth about what goes on in the country in regards to human rights violations, poverty, and similar other injustices.
I’ll admit that as a traveler I immediately wanted to book a plane ticket to Yangon (also known as Rangoon) and explore the hidden land of majestic pagodas and Buddhist temples, and a colonial past that once was the daily existence of Imperial Policeman Eric Blair. I became entrance with traveling there after discovering that the Orient-Express Company (the epitome of travel luxury in case you’re not familiar with it) offers a four-night cruise on the Irrawaddy River (Ayeyarwady) on a ship appropriately named Road to Mandalay (the name of course from a line in a famous Rudyard Kipling poem and also the second largest city in Burma).
But the bigger picture does remain. Is it ethical for travelers to visit Burma, a country that has been brutally ruled by a military junta for almost half a century? A repressed country that used slave labor to develop a great deal of its tourism infrastructure? Are the dollars one spends actually going to help the Burmese people or are they instead going right into the pockets of already rich military generals? Since 1996, individuals and organizations around the world have called for the boycott of tourism to Burma in response to the military-endorsed “Visit-Myanmar Year” in 1996. Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, winner of the General Election of 1990, the first multi-party elections held in Burma since 1960 when the country became a totalitarian state, participated in the boycott. She requested that tourists not visit Burma stating that” visiting is tantamount to condoning the regime.”
Those in favor of visiting Burma claim that you can ethically visit as in there are places you can stay and eat at in which your tourist dollars will go to support those local workers and not the government. And yet, I don’t know how much I truly believe this. Burma is a place in which one of its own citizens can be potentially thrown in jail if the government deems them as having said something “wrong” to a tourist. A place where the government would prefer to offer a selective form of tourism (selective in the sense that every move of yours is closely monitored and scrutinized from the moment you step foot in their country) instead of opening it up to the world, allowing other infrastructures to grow and develop, specifically that of healthcare. Those in support of visiting Burma also make the claim that there exist many other countries in which travel to there is not ethical (namely in the form of human rights violations) and yet the tourists continue flocking there, but with much less controversy than Burma. Zimbabwae (Victoria Falls), China, the Maldives-these are all places in which travelers go to experience spectacular sights. Yet horrific things occur there on a daily basis minus travelers’ boycotts.
I don’t know where I necessarily stand on the issue of whether or not one should travel to Burma. I see the worthiness of both sides. Aung San Suu Kyi’s asked tourists to refrain from visiting, stating that Burma has been here for thousands of years and will continue to be in the future, one day in which its people are free again. I hope this indeed becomes the case and yet should the Road to Mandalay and the rest of Burma’s exquisite treasures be forever off limits to tourists? Can I as a tourist not just visit a country without having to take a side on it? Can tourists no longer just be a neutral factor?