Myanmar (Burma)

The largest country in mainland South East Asia is the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, also known as Myanmar or Burma – a nation known for its historically abysmal human rights record. Between 1962 and 2011 the country was ruled by a horrific military regime (military junta) that ignored international sanctions and criticism. The military generals that ran the country were accused of gross human rights abuses, including the forcible relocation of civilians and the use of forced labour (including children.)

Burma is a largely rural and densely forested country. It has five land boarders shared with Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand, along with a stretching coastline to the west – the Bay of Bengal. Myanmar has highly fertile soil and was once one of the worlds largest rice producers, however today the export of rice is minimal. Myanmar is the world’s largest exporter of teak timber and a principal source of jade, pearls, rubies and sapphires. The country also has large deposits of offshore natural gas and oil. As of 2014, Myanmar had a population of 54.1 million people – for its large landmass (676,578 square kilometres) – it has one of the lowest population densities in South East Asia.

Once one of the most dynamic and unique countries in Asia, Myanmar was in exile for the best past of 50 years (1962 – 2011). In 2010, the first general election in 20 years was held. However, the main opposition group boycotted the election – the National League for Democracy (NLD) lead by Aung San Suu Kyi – due to accusations of corruption & fraud. In 1990, the NLD had won a landslide victory in the previous multi-party election, but was not allowed to govern.

In an attempt to transition from military rule to a civilian democracy, a civilian government was installed in March 2011 (led by President Thein Sein – who had previously served as a general and then prime minister under the military reign). By no means has the military distanced itself completely from the new civilian government; the constitution states that a quarter of seats in both parliamentary chambers are reserved for the military, along three key ministerial posts. However, a series of reforms following the 2010 election has provided some light at the end of the tunnel, ending decades of international isolation and reopening discussions & foreign aid from around the world, including USA and EU. As stated by the World Bank in 2014, “Myanmar is currently in a triple transition – from an authoritarian military system to democratic governance, from a centrally directed economy to a market-oriented economy, and from 60 years of conflict to peace in its border areas.”

In 2014 Myanmar welcomed 3.05 million international tourists. International visitors had increased significantly of 2013 figures, up ~50% from 2.04 million travellers. In 2014, the majority of the tourists came from Asia, with 30% of tourists coming from further afield like Germany and the UK. Myanmar is focusing on developing the tourism sector and has set an ambitious goal of attracting five million tourists in 2015. Myanmar’s wealth of Buddhist temples has boosted the increasingly important tourism industry, which is beginning to gather foreign investment. Be sure to check out the Shwedagon Pagoda (located in the former capital; Yangon), it is the most sacred of all Buddhist sites in Myanmar. The Bagan ancient kingdom and Indawgyi Lake are both absolutely breathtaking.

To learn more about Tourism Concern’s commitment to ethical tourism in Myanmar, check out these articles:







Ethical Travel Issues and advice

Displacement of Local Peoples:

Tourism development has caused many communities to be forcibly displaced. Indigenous groups, people living in informal settlements, or people who lack official title deeds to their lands are particularly vulnerable to displacement or loss of access to lands and waters essential for their livelihoods. This often happens with little or no warning, compensation or alternative provision.

Governments and private companies have forced many tribal peoples from their ancestral lands to make way for national parks and so called ‘eco-tourism’. Fishing communities are removed from their coastal villages and blocked from accessing the sea as hotels are built and beaches are privatised, destroying livelihoods and traditional ways of life. Informal settlements are bulldozed under beautification projects in the lead up to major international sporting events.

One of the most alarming negative effects of tourism is the displacement of people from their homes and traditional occupations to make way for tourism developments. These are often multimillion dollar projects backed by powerful investors and local governments. Local people have little say in what happens. In Burma, 5,200 residents of the ancient city of Pagan were forcibly displaced in the lead up to ‘Visit Myanmar Year’ in 1996.

One of the most notorious examples of how people have been displaced to make way for tourism has been in Burma, where organizations such as Tourism Concern and Amnesty International have condemned the disturbing link between tourism development and human rights abuses. In Burma, this has also involved forced labour. Tourists witnessed thousands of people – including manacled prisoners, women and children – being forced to help clean the Mandalay palace moat so that the military junta could promote the palace for tourists.

In another part of Burma, at the ancient capital of Pagan, founded in the ninth century, more than 5000 people, who lived inside its walls, were told to pack their bags ready for removal to Pagan new town, a parched-earth site, some 5km from the old town. Their homes were destroyed to make way for tourism and the resort hotels that promote their charms online.

To learn more check out the following Tourism Concern articles on Land displacement:

Ethical Photography:

Travelling presents an opportunity to photograph in lots of different destinations and situations, but sometimes there may be culturally sensitive issues to think about before reaching for the camera or other photo-taking device. There are lots of people in the world who do not have clean water, electricity, schooling or enough to eat, let alone access to mobile telephones, the internet and printed media, so they have no idea where their photograph may end up or how it could be used. Sadly, in this day and age, child prostitution, child trafficking and other crimes against children are facilitated via the Internet, and photography can play an unwitting and innocent role. Photography and its use is no longer straight forward, so perhaps it is time to stop and think a little about the ethics of photography.

Smiling and survival, for example, go hand in hand for the Kayan Padaung women of Burma, who have been refugees in northwest Thailand for a generation. Sometimes known as ‘giraffe women’, they wear brass rings around their neck, a cultural practice that has turned them into a tourist attraction. Visitors to their especially built ‘villages’, dubbed by the UN as ‘human zoos’, take their photographs and can try on the coils. The women see little of the money that the tourists pay to gaze at them. As one Kayan told the Bangkok Post:

‘The tourists think we are primitive people.The guides say they don’t want to see good roads or clean villages or anything modern, so we have to live like this to please the tourists.’

Taking photos of friendly people of Burma can be a highlight for many travellers and photographers. Smiles are universal ways to engage, as is showing people the photo you just took of them. If you show an interest in their work or ask them questions, they’ll be happy to have their picture taken. In some touristy places it has become common for people to ask for money for their photos to be taken. Do as you wish, but a photo of someone you shared a laugh with may have a better lasting impression than one you paid for. Don’t forget the same holds true for any porters and guides that may help you along the way. Take an interest in them and you’ll be rewarded with more great photo opportunities.

Ethnic tensions:

The largest ethnic group is the Burman (or Bamar people), this group of people are distantly related to the Tibetans and Chinese. The Burman dominance over minority groups such as the Karen, Shan, Rakhine, Mon, Rohingya, Chin, Kachin and various others has been the source of considerable ethnic tension which has fuelled intermittent protests, violence and separatist rebellions.

During the past couple of decades, military offensives against insurgents have displaced and uprooted many thousands of civilians. Ceasefire deals signed in late 2011 with rebels of the Karen and Shan suggested a new determination to end the long-running conflicts. A draft ceasefire agreement was also signed between the government and all 16 rebel groups in March 2015. Before visiting Burma, it is encouraged to research and understand the many ethnic groups that exist in the country. 

Traditional Medicine:

Abject poverty in the country has caused a mass black market in endangered species and driven villagers to supplement diet through poaching. Hunting however remains the biggest threat to wildlife, with localised subsistence and targeted trade of endangered tiger and turtle to Asian Markets. Tourists are particularly targeted with an array of traditional medicines derived from endangered animal parts such as tiger teeth.

Elephant Trekking/Rides:

An elephant ride is a popular tourist activity, especially in many parts of Asia and parts and some regions of Africa. The appeal of such treks is clear – the elephant is the largest land mammal, it’s intelligent, social and emotional. Trekking elephants are often mistreated and harshly trained and many people now believe that tourist elephant trekking should be avoided (many Ethical tour operators have stopped offering Elephant trekking altogether).

The tradition of using elephants in industry has mostly ended, mainly due to irresponsible over-logging. The collapse of the industry created huge problems for the mahouts who had to find a way to pay for the care and upkeep of their elephants, which can consume up to 200 kilograms of food a day. Mahouts had to find other ways to support their huge charges, which is why many began begging in the streets or turned to tourism via trekking, rides or entertainment.

To make a wild animal such as an elephant compliant and able to be controlled by humans they are often deprived of food and sleep, they are subject to regular beatings using the ankus or billhook, and physical restraint such as chaining and shackling. According to right tourism, the training that’s required to make them safe around people is often akin to torture, as demonstrated by the traditional Thai “phajaan” or “crush,” where young animals spirits are systematically broken through torture and social isolation.

Do you really want to be supporting such a cruel activity? To learn more check out the following Tourism Concern articles on Elephant riding.

Water Equity:

Tourists use more water than the ordinary consumer. Indeed, the water ‘footprint’ of the Western world, as in our carbon footprint, is very high. There are already serious water shortages worldwide and a prediction of ‘water wars’.

The United Nations has claimed that ‘The average tourist uses as much water in 24 hours as a third world villager would use to produce rice for 100 days.’ Tourists need unlimited supplies of water – they are used to it at home and desire copious amounts on holiday: for drinking, baths and showers, swimming pools, overflowing fountains and green manicured lawns.

But water, in developing countries, is often a precious commodity. More than 2 billion people lack access to clean water and sanitation, and 80 per cent of all deaths in the developing world are water related. Put a hotel near a local community and the pressure on the water supply is acute.

Tourism Concern has extensively campaigned on water equity and have published reports & articles on the topic. To learn more check out the following Tourism Concern articles: