The fertile delta region south and west of Yangon has long been of great importance, due to its abundant agricultural production and strategic location for trading. It made news headlines around the world in 2008 after being devastated by Cyclone Nargis, when the military regime blocked foreign aid claiming that they had the situation under control. This worsened an already appalling situation and the official final death toll was 138,000 people, although in reality it was probably much higher.
While a lot of the region was closed after the cyclone, it is now completely open again, but most people rush straight through its lush green rice fields and sleepy towns on their way to the beaches at Chaung Tha and Ngwe Saung. If you don’t mind roughing it a bit, one good way to see more of the region is to travel by public ferry to Pathein, famous for its handmade parasols, before carrying on to the beaches.
The west coast of Myanmar lies to the north of the delta region. First comes the long and thin stretch of Rakhine State, separated from the plains to the east by mountains, then Chin State and its border with Bangladesh. The most touted destination in this part of the country is Ngapali Beach, but it’s a long, hard journey by bus and rising hotel prices have squeezed out anyone on a very strict budget. Of more interest to most budget travellers is Mrauk U, capital of Rakhine when it was a separate country, but it was closed to tourists following violence in 2012. Until this situation changes, it is also impossible to take boat trips from Mrauk U into Chin State, which had previously been the easiest way to see the rarely-visited state without a permit.Read More
Recent violence in Rakhine State
Recent violence in Rakhine State
The Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Rakhine State, have been described as one of the most heavily oppressed groups in the world. Stripped of their citizenship in 1982, the Rohingya have long been discriminated against by members of the state’s majority Buddhist ethnic group, the Rakhine, and tensions have simmered for decades. They boiled over in June 2012 following the rape of a Buddhist woman, allegedly by three Muslim men. As homes and public buildings in northern Rakhine State were burned by Buddhists, dozens of Muslims were killed and around 75,000 people – the vast majority of them Rohingya – were driven into refugee camps. Further violence in October saw another 36,000 displaced, and hundreds of thousands more being cut off from essential services such as health care.
Many Buddhists in Myanmar, including pro-democracy campaigners and religious leaders, are vehemently anti-Rohingya and reject the use of the word Rohingya itself. They argue that the community has only a relatively short history of settlement in Myanmar, and that they are in fact Bengalis who belong in Bangladesh. Outsiders who have tried to work with the Rohingya refugees have faced opposition and intimidation from Buddhists, including monks. Many international commentators have expressed disappointment that Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to speak out in defence of the Rohingya, a stance that would be unpopular with many Myanmar voters.
At the time of research, much of the coastal area of Rakhine State was off-limits to tourists. It appears that when it reopens, it might (initially at least) be accessible only with a permit and licensed guide. The most interesting tourist destination in the closed area is Mrauk U, where hundreds of old temples coexist with a contemporary settlement. If the area is open then it can be reached by boat from the town of Sittwe, which is linked to both Yangon and Ngapali Beach by air, and to the latter by boat.