x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

If you decide to go to Myanmar, do so with care and concern

The protocol Studded with Buddhist temples as well as luxury hotels and private guesthouses, Myanmar (also known as Burma) is a surprisingly easy country to negotiate as a traveller.

Bagan is the largest area of Buddhist temples in the world.
Bagan is the largest area of Buddhist temples in the world.

Studded with Buddhist temples as well as luxury hotels and private guesthouses, Myanmar (also known as Burma) is a surprisingly easy country to negotiate as a traveller. The cities of Yangon and Mandalay, Bagan (a funeral complex similar to Angkor Wat), Lake Inle and its pristine beaches are connected by a reliable airline service and receive a fraction of the tourists crowding neighboring Thailand and Cambodia.

While Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the country's democracy party (who is under house arrest), and her supporters still call for a tourist boycott of the country; others feel that if you are careful where you spend hard currency, foreign travellers can do good simply by talking to local people and demonstrating that the world has not forgotten their plight. Citizens are surprisingly eager to talk to foreigners and to hear how Myanmar is perceived abroad. Such conversations, however, may have unintended consequences. Thanks to an Orwellian atmosphere of surveillance, heightened by the 2007 crackdown by the military regime after Buddhist monks protested for better living conditions, citizens may be suspicious and fearful of one another. So, you must be aware of your surroundings and let local people take the lead in bringing up politics.

For example, monks may feel uncomfortable talking in the presence of licensed tourist guides, who are government employees. In turn, guides may express discontent against the regime to clients in private and warn you that monasteries harbour monks who are so-called saffron-robed spies and who inform on locals and foreigners alike. As a foreigner though, you are far more likely to get into trouble for trying to smuggle a black market ruby out of the country - airport scanners actively look for unlicensed gemstones - than for stoking dissent, unless you are caught participating in a political demonstration.

Rather than bluntly asking someone what he or she thinks of Myanmar's military leader, Senior General Than Shwe, if you inquire about everyday living conditions such as the availability and price of fuel, your curiosity will be appreciated and reciprocated. For local people, watching pirate DVDs of foreign movies and TV shows at generator-powered coffeehouses is a popular evening pastime, and questions about favourite singers or films may open the door to the issue of sanctions and Myanmar's isolation.

You may be disturbed by the answer but a more subtle approach to political debate is to ask,"have you had to volunteer for anything lately?". Volunteering is a euphemism for the military junta's practice of conscripting citizens to work without pay to build civil and military infrastructure across the country; an abuse that has been well-documented by Amnesty International and the UN International Labour Organisation. Forced labour on airports, archaeological sites and other tourist infrastructure in the late 1990s originally led to Myanmar being singled out for a travel boycott by campaign groups such as Tourism Concern, which still advocates such a boycott. "Volunteers" including teenagers are called on to clear forests, and build roads and military barracks even though Myanmar officially outlawed forced labour in 2000.

Travellers should be aware however, that Myanmar has a long tradition of collectivism and that not all projects are evidence of human rights' abuses. For example, during my last visit to the country in 2007, I witnessed Eng villagers near the trekking centre of Keng Tong dragging huge teak logs to build a monastery, while a longboat builder on Lake Inle told me how he and his wife had been "volunteered" for three days to install electrical wiring in the village. You may also see monks and nuns engaged in hard physical work using simple tools such as hoes to build access roads to monasteries.

One of the best ways to get a handle on Myanmar's many ironies, tragedies and contradictions is to attend a performance by the Moustache Brothers Satiric Troupe in Mandalay. Their nightly show of monologues, skits and traditional dance, simultaneously translated into English by a former black-market cigarette and whiskey dealer, amounts to an impassioned and hilarious anti-government diatribe. Most tour guides are afraid to take clients to see the Moustache Brothers, who are banned from performing for locals, but you can find taxi drivers outside the Sedona Hotel willing to drop you off at the house on 39th street between 80th and 81st streets where they perform. Tickets for the 8pm performance costs US$5 (Dh18).