The country that once served as Burmese communism’s front line in a fight against “imperialist global powers” will soon welcome tourists. But it is a young democracy that could provide insights into what international visitors to Myanmar will find — and to what extent anyone will go.
Lilly Liu, a documentary filmmaker who was born in Myanmar and moved to Australia at age 11, wrote for the World Bank about how she and her husband moved to Myanmar with a vision of setting up a local-currency advertising agency but found the country stuck in a “slavery-like” economic rut.
The country’s new authoritarian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, formally accepted the Nobel Peace Prize she had won in 1991, when her regime was more liberal. But her late husband, Michael Aris, had fought against the British in the 1962 war in which he was imprisoned, and his daughters, Nimeta and Zinni, remain convinced her time in power is too short to ensure an independent economy, worthy of the Nobel prize.
Many have realized how little Myanmar has of either, no thanks to its economic policies. Last September, the country was ranked the world’s worst on the United Nations’ Human Development Index — ranking worse than Zimbabwe and Afghanistan, as well as war-torn Yemen and Syria.
Zinni, the architect of Myanmar’s first legal reforms, had spent a decade fighting for her husband’s release before he was murdered by his political opponents in 1993. “I lost my husband, I lost my child, I lost my piece of home, I lost my college, and this is why I have not grown up — because I am actually sorry that I never got to see it,” she wrote on her Tumblr page.
The Guardian recently published a scathing depiction of the bloody military that brutally suppressed protests in the 1980s, which managed to trick many Chinese tourists into flying in and — at least on the surface — avoiding most of the harsher aspects of Myanmar’s regime. Their visit came after China, the country’s primary international backer, refused to apply international pressure to maintain Suu Kyi’s civilian government.
Faced with soaring unemployment and a tattered human rights record, China has seen the potential of an expanding presence in the country. In addition to high-end tourist attractions like Yangon’s famed pagodas, Laing Boi is a museum showcasing the 120-year history of Chinese rule in Myanmar.
Ki Htay Than, 24, travels to Myanmar about four times a year, spending part of his time in the jungle, where her father worked as a forest ranger, at the invitation of her family. He has not met Nobel Prize winner Suu Kyi but has met Suu Kyi “20 times in the past year,” and worked on the 2013 film “Fireflies in the Garden.”
Htay Sang has worked at a Buddhist temple in Kyaukphyu, a wealthy port town near the Thai border. He is excited for the country’s tourism boom. “It will be great,” he said.
But is it? Recent news has put a bright new light on things — and, depending on the data, there are some stark results.
China is very proud of its tourist infrastructure in Myanmar.
Htay Sang’s brother, Ye Htut Tun, heads the Myanmar Times Group, which consists of the English-language and Chinese-language versions of the country’s largest newspapers. He is currently at the forefront of Myanmar’s efforts to establish reliable mobile phone reception on a massive scale. “The government has introduced a number of good ideas over the past year,” he said.
But the tourism industry in Myanmar remains shrouded in secrecy, many remain convinced that the country will remain an impoverished backwater for decades to come. “It’s a bit of a miracle tourism actually managed to take off, and it has,” said Roger Smith, a retired former teacher living in Yangon. “It’s an unbelievable leap of faith.
Smith became a tourism critic after visiting Myanmar in 2003, shortly after the civil war ended, and many observers attribute its real popularity to the campaign he helped to set up. According to the Myanmar Times, Burma’s tourism earnings reached $16.5 billion in 2016, more than the country’s GDP.
According to Yangon-based travel guide Silver Fox Asia, there are two million visitors to the country annually. These include a number of regular visitors — expats living in the country and foreigners who want to visit Myanmar.
A long-term perspective is needed, says Smith