In 2014, when Chika and I traveled around Southeast Asia for four months, one of our favorite places to visit was Myanmar. We spent about three weeks there, getting sick in Yangon, seeing the temples in Bagan, exploring the city of Mandalay, and hiking three days from Kalaw to Inle Lake. The country had so much to offer, and the warmth of the people made it fun to simply walk around in any city. At the time, Myanmar was just being discovered by travelers from Europe, and we had met very few Americans along the way. The country was closed for so long that people are just now discovering this place.
From the shipboard community of about 700 people, including students, faculty, staff, and Lifelong Learners, only a handful of people had visited Myanmar. Even most of those who have traveled to more than 50 countries had never been here. This meant that the three weeks we had spent there had made us some of the “experts” onboard. The several days leading up to our arrival in Myanmar, many people asked us to have lunch with them to talk about our experiences. We took part in many conversations around the ship about what we recommend doing and giving cultural tips. Chika even helped lead a seminar along with our Interport Lecturer, a banker from Myanmar, in which they gave travel tips to all who wanted to join (probably 300 attended).
One item that had changed in Myanmar is the intensity of the persecution of the Rohingya people in the Rakhine State of Myanmar, in the western part of the country. While we had heard a bit about what was going on in 2014, in August of this year, the government ramped up attacks on Rohingya Muslim communities. For years, the Rohingya had been forced into refugee camps. After a few Muslim attacks on a military traffic control, the government waged all out war against the mostly unarmed Rohingya people. They went into many villages and shot the men on the spot, raped the women, and burned their villages and crops. Over 500,000 Rohingya fled from their villages to refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh. The UN has called it “ethnic cleansing” sponsored by the Myanmar government.
Leading up to Myanmar, we had many talks and seminars about this terrible situation in the country. Because all this was happening in the Rakhine State, where there are no major tourist attractions, we knew that our shipboard community wouldn’t be in any danger. However, the government is the party that is killing and driving many people away from their villages, creating all the conditions in order for these people never to return. The money we pay for visas, government-run sites, all sales tax, that all goes to the government. Essentially, just docking in the country, and money we spend, at least a portion of that is going to the government. Some students believed we shouldn’t go at all. Some thought we should go so that we could learn about the country and educate others back home about what is going on. I sided with the former, wishing that we’d continue east a bit a dock at a country like Thailand.
When we arrived in Thaniwa, about 20 miles south of the city center of Yangon, a diplomat from the US Embassy came onboard and talked to our community about the history of Myanmar as well as the current events. He had fantastic information and many great thoughts. When asked more about where our sales tax money would go, he went into further detail about how the country is set up. Essentially, the military and the civilian government are two completely separate entities that seem to rarely communicate. The civilian government was elected in 2015 in fair elections, but the ever present military still has a strong control. The civilian government collects all taxes, and the military is a budget item for the civilian government. White we do know how much the civilian government is giving the military, we don’t know what the military is using that on in detail. The diplomat said that the country is on its way to democracy, a process they never thought would be easy. Although the military has done some horrible things, the country is going the right direction for a full democracy. The way to keep moving this forward is to keep the economy going up, and our money going to the locals who offer accommodations, food, souvenirs, etc., that all help the economy. In his opinion, which I believe is genuine, it is better to go and to help the economy and to also learn about the people and take stories home.
While we knew that we were set to go to Myanmar, it was still important to have these discussions. As a passenger on the ship, I had one of two options. I could either stay on the ship and spend no money in order to minimize how much was going to the government. Or I could use my time to visit some places in the country. I debated back and forth, and I ended up deciding to travel a little but to keep my spending to a minimum and to local businesses as much as possible.
In trying to continue finding the positives of going to Myanmar, one student probably said it best. “If we had diverted from Myanmar, no one would have cared to learn about the Rohingya people. Because we are going there, the discussions around these events have increased awareness to 700 people. Hopefully this translates to action.”