Beautiful Myanmar: the land of golden pagodas, vast fishing lakes and ancient kingdoms. A land, that for 49 years – until 2011 – was under the control of an oppressive military junta that brought impoverishment and brute force to its people.
Today, under the rule of Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, the majority of the country is prospering. Tourism, alongside the industries of agriculture and natural gas, is thriving. And the world is getting to see the wonderful and relatively untouched world of the Burmese people.
However, all is not well in Myanmar. In the northern Rakhine state, thousands of Rohingya muslims are facing extreme violence and persecution at the hands of the Burmese military.
Some 700,000 Rohingya have fled the country since August 2017. With many crossing the border into Bangladeshi city, Cox’s Bazaar, where the refugee community are forced to live under tents for shelter.
How bad is it?
The atrocities have been branded by the UN as a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’.
Stories from journalists reporting in the area have told of babies being taken from their family homes and being thrown into burning bonfires, women and girls being raped and entire villages burning to the ground.
Meanwhile in capital Yangon, the street corners are packed with makeshift ‘tea houses’ – each with its own little stove set up – ready to welcome everyone in from their exhausting day.
The ancient kingdom of Bagan, a popular spot for tourists, has been listed as a World Heritage Site. The beaches that delicately line the west coast of the country are slowly building into paradise destinations. You wouldn’t guess a genocide is taking place just a few hundred kilometres north.
How did the ‘Rohingya Crisis’ come about?
The Rohingya are just one of many ethnic minorities living in Myanmar.
Thought to be descendants of Arabs, with their own culture, language and followers of Islam, Rohingya have occupied this region for hundreds of years.
Still, the majority Myanmar government have continually denied the Rohingya citizenship, refusing to recognise them as people within their own country. This means they cannot vote in elections. Instead, they are seen as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
For many years now, the Rohingya minority have faced continuous violence from security forces. There have been countless riots and protests. Many Rohingya have been forced into ‘camps’ where they have limited access to education, medical help and food. Because of this, this heavily persecuted minority have been fleeing the country for a while, with tension continuing on both sides.
Then in August 2017, a Rohingya militant group called the ‘Arsa’ attacked police posts in the Rakhine province. The police, backed by Buddhist monks and local mobs, responded by burning Rohingya villages and killing civilians. This was claimed to be a direct reaction to the Rohingya Arsa militant attacks. According to the Burmese government, this ‘revenge attack’ ended in September 2017.
Only, it didn’t.
Numerous human rights groups who work in the area, as well as news media reporting from the Rakhine state, say the violence is still happening. That has become more and more brutal, with entire innocent civilian communities being killed.
What is happening now?
It’s been nearly a year since the latest bout of violence started. According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), at least 6,700 Rohingya, including at least 730 children under the age of five, were killed in the first month after the violence broke out.
How many have died since is unclear.
Other reports detail the abuse and rape Rohingya women and girls by the Burmese military. The UN have said they get daily reports on rapes and mass killings from the state.
According to the government, Rohingya civilians have not been targeted.
Should you visit Myanmar?
This is an important question. Use information at the time to carefully consider your trip.
According to the U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth office website, travelling around the majority of Myanmar is considered safe. Travel is not recommended in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states due to conflict.
Ethically, however, it is a tough call. On one hand, the government is turning a blind eye – and outright defending the treatment, the genocide – of innocent people.
On the other, many regular people within the country depend on tourism to make a living. Should those people be punished for the crimes of the government?
How to plan a visit
If you do intend to visit Myanmar, don’t lose sight of what is happening a few hundred kilometres north of where you are.
Focus your trip on local people and businesses.
Once you are in the country, look for guesthouses and homestays run by locals. Don’t pick big hotels as they are likely to be government-run.
The government own some restaurants in Yangon and Mandalay, like the Karaweik Palace. Avoid these – and enjoy the local street food and small restaurants that dot the side streets of the big cities instead. There are plenty of wonderful little eateries to discover.
Note down any agencies, hotels, restaurants and shops you should avoid beforehand. Most good travel guides will give you a heads up on the most popular ones. There are local taxis everywhere. They are privately owned and they don’t cost much.
Remember the government run or own many large establishments and tourist sites – including the main pagodas. Consider this before paying out entry fees. Then weigh up your options and what is important to you to see.
In places like the ancient kingdom of Bagan, the money will go towards looking after this spectacular site.
What should I not do when visiting Myanmar?
Don’t take internal flights
Domestic carriers in Myanmar are currently government official or ex-military owned. So, if possible avoid taking a flight between destinations. Buses and Myanmar’s rail network charge much less, so are a better option.
Alternatively, privately hire a taxi (and therefore, driver) as transport. Most taxi drivers charge a reasonable fee of around $40 per day including petrol. Myanmar is a very safe country. It’s rare to come across anyone who wants anything else other than show you their beautiful way of life.
Plus, you will get to experience far more of rural, authentic Myanmar this way.
Avoid visiting Myanmar by cruise ship
Unfortunately, most passengers on cruise ships end up seeing the big sites, eating at government-owned restaurants and staying at government hotels. Government-approved agencies organise these itineraries.
Plus, regardless of the cruise company you go with, the chances are they would have had to pay a hefty price to the government just to be able to dock or anchor in different ports – not to mention a surcharge for operation permits.
In short, the government would be making a lot of money just from one cruise ship visit. Avoid!
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