Fri, Feb 19, 2010 - Page 12 News List

Should tourists return to Myanmar?

Ruled by the world’s last military junta, Myanmar is shunned by both governments and tourists. Yet its people are crying out for contact. What’s the ethical traveler to do?

By Jonathan Steele  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

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ON the boat to Mandalay the same thoughts kept turning in my mind. The red orb of a full moon appeared, casting streaks of gold across the placid water of the Irrawaddy river, but even this beauty failed to displace the questions that haunted our two-week stay earlier this month. Why were we in Myanmar? Was our trip giving comfort to the country’s military dictatorship, by common consent one of the world’s worst regimes?

Myanmar never has been a popular destination, and after the bloody suppression of the monks’ protests in September 2007 and the government’s delay in helping hundreds of thousands who lost everything in Cyclone Nargis the following May, the tourist trickle almost dried up. Only 47,161 people came from Europe last year, mainly from France and Germany, making Myanmar the country least visited by British people anywhere in Asia (with the exception of North Korea).

So was our party of visitors wrong to buck the trend? Not if you go by the number of people who eagerly approached us to practice their English and, after a tentative start, wanted to say what they thought of their rulers. “They’re mad,” one driver told us as he steered his creaking banger past a crush of Chinese bicycles and motorbikes, the commonest form of transport on Myanmar’s rutted roads.

In decades of reporting I have generally stuck to journalism’s rule number one: don’t quote taxi drivers. But in a few places (Manhattan, Havana, and now Myanmar) you meet such a variety of characters forced to earn a living behind the wheel that their opinions offer a broad range of views. This driver had trained as a computer engineer before serving in a Myanmar embassy in a Western country. “Life is not improving here,” he said. “Most people don’t like the government. We have no legislative body. We have no democracy.” (Apologies for breaking journalism’s rule number two: don’t use anonymous quotes if they are pejorative. In Myanmar, critical sources deserve protection.)

Another driver was making political comments within five minutes of our hiring

him from Yangon airport into town. Asked

if it was our first trip to Burma, I said yes,

and then added, “I see you call it Burma.” “Burma good name, Myanmar new name,” he replied mischievously.

The one good thing he found to say of the regime was that it had allowed English to be taught again in primary schools. “For a time they stopped it. The army doesn’t like English, but now it’s OK again.”

That certainly seemed to be true. Yangon’s main shopping street is brimming with cramped bookshops, full of English grammar and vocabulary manuals. Similar titles were laid out on the pavements alongside food stalls and fruit-drink stands.

Myanmar is multi-ethnic and, until the military coup of 1962, was open to the world. For decades its elite spoke good English and even today most people in Yangon and Mandalay have a smattering. Keenness for contact with foreigners is strong, for its own sake and as resistance to enforced isolation.

Of course, some friendliness is commercially driven. Vendors with bright smiles and the chat-up line “Where are you from?” can turn into leeches at some sites. But genuine curiosity is more common. In the hour before sunset, when tourists routinely climb the thousand or more steps to Mandalay Hill, young monks emerge to engage in conversation, especially delighted to meet someone who speaks “real English.”

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