The question of whether to visit Myanmar – and if so, how to minimize any negative impact of that decision – has long been a complicated one. For many years, the official position of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the opposition political party of which Aung San Suu Kyi is the Chairperson and General Secretary, was to urge foreigners not to visit the country as it put money directly into the pockets of the regime. Still, some tourists did visit each year, arguing that the majority of their money was actually going to individuals and private businesses. Similarly, many people within Myanmar felt it was important that foreigners visited to see the truth of what was happening. In 2010, the NLD softened its stance, saying that it only opposed package and cruise tourism. Then, in May 2012, in the wake of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urging an easing of international sanctions against Myanmar, the NLD dropped the boycott entirely.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think that the ethical dilemma has completely gone away. Although the new government is nominally civilian, in reality the same military figures are still largely in charge. In addition the prominent business leaders commonly described as cronies – who became rich through dealing with the regime, and in some cases allegedly through trading in arms or drugs – still own many of the country’s largest businesses, including hotel groups, banks and airlines. And although the government is praised internationally for reforms such as the release of some (but not all) political prisoners and a reduction in censorship (so that NLD posters are now a common sight), some people within the country see these as surface changes intended to please foreigners – particularly the US, which hopes to lure Myanmar away from its main trading partner, China – rather than anything more fundamental.
Furthermore, it should be remembered that the suppression of dissent and suspension of the democratic process were not the military junta’s only crimes. It was also fighting what has been described as the world’s longest-running civil war, with policies that amounted to ethnic cleansing and – in the eyes of some observers – attempted genocide. Although ceasefires have been signed with some of the ethnic militias, vast swathes of the country – particularly in northern Kachin State – remain off-limits to tourists while the new government continues to fight with rebel armies (some of which, it must be admitted, are motivated as much by profit from the drug trade as they are by a thirst for democracy). If free and fair elections are held in 2015 then the NLD is expected to win a landslide victory, but it remains to be seen how they propose to keep the peace with ethnic minority groups who consider the NLD to represent only the Bamar majority – particularly if the military’s stranglehold is weakened as democracy takes root. Already the NLD has been accused of becoming too close to the generals and their cronies as it seeks their political support and funding for social projects. Some compromise is inevitable, not least because the military can veto a proposed change to the constitution to allow Aung San Suu Kyi (as someone who married a foreign national) to run for President.
Bearing all this in mind, travellers should consider limiting the amount of their money that makes it to the government and its associates. Some expenses are unavoidable, including visa fees, while others are hard to avoid if you want to see some of the main tourist attractions, such as the $10 multi-site fee in Mandalay. It can also be difficult to know exactly which businesses in Myanmar are affiliated with the government or its cronies. On the other hand, by staying in budget accommodation your money is already more likely to be going to ordinary individuals or small family businesses than to companies with strong government links (and in this guide we have tried to avoid recommending such places). The same goes for services such as vehicle hire or trekking guides – there are plenty of opportunities to use small companies and freelancers, which often leads to a better experience anyway. Some visitors also consider avoiding planes and even trains (which are operated by the government).
For more information, see