Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Myanmar, Reconsidered

There's an interesting piece posted 10 April in the International Herald Tribune, the global edition of the New York Times. The story (www.nytimes.com) says that pro-democracy activists and tourism-industry commentators in Asia fear the opening of the long-isolated country Myanmar, also known as Burma, to international tourism.

They are worried chiefly about two things, according to the story: The potential spread of Thailand-style sex tourism and a dependency on handouts among poor local people, especially poor children.

As a traveler and journalist who visited Myanmar/Burma in 2000, when few outsiders were doing so, I'd say these are valid concerns. There are downsides to travel - and especially mass tourism - but the greater risk lies in isolation, which fosters ignorance, among both locals and foreigners, and inhibits economic development.

When I visited, I met a friendly, attractive populace - one that existed on about $1 USD per person per day, however. The nation's major river, the Irrawaddy, had exactly one bridge along its 1,200-mile length. I saw maybe a dozen mobile phones in five days in-country. People were already commonly asking for money - in markets, at the country's many brilliant Buddhist shrines, on street corners - and many of them were children, impoverished by decades-long rule by the harsh military junta that was made worse by international sanctions against the regime.

Since the recent elections and cautious loosening - not abandonment - of control by the junta, tourists are starting to visit the country for its unique properties. Indeed, Myanmar/Burma struck me as being about 40 years behind most of the world, including neighboring Asian countries, when I visited. The erstwhile capital city, Rangoon, also called Yangon, looked like a big Asian city must have looked in about 1960. Going there is like taking part in time travel.

Many sectors of the tourism industry are reportedly controlled by elements of the regime and other well-connected insiders. That is at the high end, however. Cab drivers, many tour guides, restaurants, food sellers and keepsake sellers, small merchants and others can be paid in cash directly by travelers, and that is money they need. Not all of it needs to go through the establishment or contribute directly to its upkeep.

Is the glass half-empty or half-full? It's hard to know for sure, but I think it's half-full. The regime is letting go its grip, gradually, to be sure, and this legendary Buddhist land is cautiously returning to the world. Right now, Chinese and Thais are the most numerous visitors. Personally, I'd return in a heartbeat.

Footnote: The regime renamed the country Myanmar, after an ancient local kingdom, to rid the nation's name of colonial associations. Burma is a name bestowed by the British and refers to the multicultural country's largest ethnic group, the Burmese. Much of the fighting in border regions in recent decades has been between Burmese and national minorities. English-speaking locals told me during my visit that the name Myanmar is pronounced ME 'n ma - the r on the end is silent.

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