When we started planning our pre-volunteering travel around Southeast Asia, we strongly considered including Burma on our itinerary. Deciding whether to go to Burma is a complex enough issue to which Lonely Planet devotes an entire chapter, covering the arguments for and against visiting. One main argument against going is that you will be funding the junta with your tourist dollars. Another is that the government will only allow tourists to see the beautiful pagodas, lakes, ruins, and museums, and you will not see how people truly live in Burma.
We also talked to our AJWS coordinator, who told us that "AJWS doesn’t condone it [travel to Burma], but we can’t tell you what to do." After debating both sides for awhile, we decided not to visit Burma during our pre-AJWS travels, mostly because we were unsure how our NGO colleagues would feel about it.
Fast forward a few months. Today was my last day volunteering in Mae Hong Son, and this afternoon I had a long talk with my NGO director about travel to Burma. He feels emphatically that foreigners should visit Burma. On the question of money, he said:
The government doesn’t care about your money. They have China…and Russia. They just care about power. By going to Burma you can see how the people really live and start separating government propaganda from reality.”
On the question of will we just see what the junta wants us to see, his thoughts were:
Do your research before you go. Foreigners are very smart. They read about the situation before they go and they are careful when they are there. If you are smart and tricky, you will be able to see the true Burma.
I asked him were we should go when we visit Burma. He told me that we have to see Rangoon. He also mentioned that should visit Naypyidaw, the new capital erected by Than Shwe, to experience the alternate life/reality that the generals lead.
I was curious if he thought that I’d be able to visit some of the ethnic-minority border states. He thought it would be okay, but warned me, “Keep your eyes open. As a foreigner you will definitely be watched by the government.”
I do really want to go to Burma to see the people and situation that I’ve read so much about, and I feel that the experiences and conversations we’ve had in Thailand have provided us with some necessary preparations for such a visit. Now that they have visa on arrival, it’s easier to arrange for travel, but of course we are getting on a plane to the US this Tuesday. While we will have to wait until our next trip to Southeast Asia to see Burma, hopefully we can plan our trip at a time when our new Burmese friends will be in their hometowns and they can show us many of the places they’ve told us stories about.