Yet again it is the time when many a globetrotter plans to travel to Myanmar for the upcoming high season. However, many are not quite convinced if it’s safe and politically legitimate.
Here at Myanmazing Travel Agency, we don’t try to sugar-coat anything but we would love to help you better understand the political situation in Myanmar and whether it’s safe to travel here.
Hopefully this will supply you with deeper knowledge when you decide whether to travel or not – but it’s absolutely certain that you can learn much more about this charming and challenged country if you continue reading.
What just happened in Rakhine State?
Sadly, 2017 and 2018 have rightly drawn many negative headlines to and over Myanmar.
Horrific stories about the aggression of Myanmar’s government army (Tatmadaw) as it ploughed through Rakhine State were plentiful and heart-breaking.
This brutal campaign sent hundreds of thousands, primarily stateless, Muslim Rohingya, fleeing through the jungle into only relative safety in Bangladesh, which is another nation that holds this ethnic minority in very low regard. As of yet, there is no sound plan in place as to how to relocate the Rohingyas and promise them a future with even a minimum of dignity.
The background for the violence, however, goes back to August 2017. The Islamic separatist movement known as ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) launched attacks on police stations and road check-points, killing several people.
The aggression followed decades – if not hundreds of years – of the Rohingyas living in a vacuum of statelessness and severe discrimination.
This was the perfect excuse for the Burmese government army to retaliate tenfold against a minority that the former has always despised and seen as “Bengali invaders”. This view is also held millions of civilians here, and it is Myanmazing’s belief that tourists should refrain from debating this topic when traveling here as it is probably the most sensitive and infested topic you could bring up during your conversation with a local.
Even though these despicable events happened in Myanmar’s far-flung Rakhine State – and on a hitherto unprecedented scale – it’s actually not something novel nor something that really shakes up the nation as it is. Burma, which was renamed Myanmar again in 1989, has had to live with conflict like few other nations across the world.
The world’s longest-lasting civil war
We have to go all the way back to January 4th 1948. Euphoria erupts in the dusty streets of the Old capital, Rangoon.
Finally, Burma has succeeded in ejecting the British colonialists who have promised many Burmese ethnicities their own sovereign states in the post-colonial Burma. There are, however, many of these minority groups that don’t believe the new Burmese government will actually follow through on this vision. Thus, Karen militant separatists let the first shots fall on this very day of jubilation.
Many other rebel groups have since formed and subsequently joined this jungle war of attrition.
In the east, five rebel groups fight for their own territory, and in the north, Kachin Independence Army regularly face the technologically superior Tatmadaw. There are a few rebel groups that have indeed signed peace treaties with Tatmadaw but they are all regarded as small players in the big game of realizing a Myanmar at complete peace.
What few people know is that today the conflicts are much more about expediency and opportunism rather than a battle based on old political ideologies and dreams of securing minorities beyond well-established border lines.
In the embattled peripheral areas where all of these daily skirmishes and full-blooded confrontations continue, there is also BIG business going on.
This business comprises illegal trade with rare animal species and timber, yet the goods that really make it big business are illegal drugs such as methamphetamine and heroin. Officially, the government army seeks to eradicate this trade but there are many examples of the former letting the rebel groups produce the drugs without interfering and sharing the profits afterwards. This is also why officers and other high officials – whose official salaries hardly enable them to sustain an average family – are able to drive large Lexus SUVs and live lives of extreme exuberance.
Yet, perhaps the biggest driver of the civil war is jade stone. No other place in the world can one find such vast yields of unparalleled quality than in Myanmar’s Kachin State. The business is largely controlled by army officers and their families who have set up an ocean of front companies to mask the identity of the real owners. Global Witness estimated this business was worth more than 30 billion USD in 2014 alone. See this video for more fascinating info.
Will travellers then be caught in the crossfire?
No, absolutely not, and to get back to the question about whether it’s safe to travel to Myanmar, the good news is that nothing has changed. Myanmar remains one of – if not the – safest country in Southeast Asia, and there have never been any cases of foreign tourists suddenly finding themselves in the middle of an active war zone.
As has always been the case, vast areas of Myanmar are no-go zones that you would not be able to reach even if you were accompanied by Kofi Annan. Endless checkpoints ensure these restive areas remain inaccessible.
However, there is no denying that there is conflict, and there is no doubt that different ethnic groups suffer and will continue to do so.
Some people have reservations about traveling to Myanmar when these things happen concurrently, and that is a private matter that we as a travel agency regret but greatly respect.
Yet, when it boils down to a simple answer to the simple question: “Is it safe to travel to Myanmar?”, we can only tell you that you will be safer here than in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and all the other destinations you might already have been to. People here are fantastically helpful and honest, and you may have to travel here to fully understand.
On a final note, tourism is what Myanmar needs. You may not be able to completely avoid indirectly supporting people with dirty hands, but the cultural exchange that tourism provides is a vital part of building a more enlightened Myanmar.
We hope you learned something from reading this – and thank you for making it all the way to the end.
We hope to see you in Myanmar in the future! 🙂