Keep in mind that about 12% of this money collected by the private sector from tourism funds ends up in the hands of the military regime. This begs the question many of us have faced over the last two decades. Is it better to go, which helps the military dictatorship, or better to boycott? There is no clear cut correct answer.
Some proponents of tourism in Burma say that more isolation won’t fix the problems and sanctions that push the country backwards. Burma is a land of contradictions, people whose undaunting spirit has withstood centuries of oppression, going back to Kublai Khan and King George VI. The current regime is called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), formerly known as the State Law & Order Restoration Council (Slorc), basically the oppressive military junta running Burma since 1962.
The junta arrested Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League of Democracy (NLD) in 1989, despite the fact they won 82% of the vote! From that period onward, the junta used forced labor to build up the tourism infrastructure, and rebuilt sites such as Mandalay Palace, re-paved roads, and built airports and runways. They even created “new towns” to disperse the population.
For many years, Aung San, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, supported a total boycott, though she has been under house arrest since 1989 (released in 2010). Of course, since she was released, things have changed, if only on the surface. She recently announced in 2015, that she wanted to run for the Presidency. However, she is prevented form running unless she needs the approval of at least one military legislator (the junta).
Most compelling is that the majority of locals want tourists to come. It offers locals an income and communication with the outside world. Human rights violations are less likely to occur where tourists are present. And the junta has stopped the required $200 exchange into Burmese notes upon arrival.
Yet, it is impossible to visit without some money going to the military junta. The new eVisa is $50, along with a $20 departure fee, and from 7 to 10% tax on services and purchases. The eVisa is good for 90 days from the date of issue, and for only a 28 day maximum stay for tourists. Travel to certain areas are still forbidden. Amnesty International reported that forced labor has decreased over the last decade.
That brings us to today. So, why did we decide to visit now? First, the doors of tourism are more open now than they have ever been. Second, we want to see the country before it changes dramatically. Over the last several years, we have been offered trips to Burma by locals we know, living in Bangkok. We were torn between “helping” the junta, or visiting a new and mysterious country. I think the time to visit is now.
The election is coming up, and the military regime has campaign posters everywhere. Aung San has none, since everybody knows her. She is quite beloved here, much like a queen in a monarchy.