Here’s why you shouldn’t boycott travel to Myanmar

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MYANMAR, formerly Burma, has become a bucket-list destination for travelers visiting Southeast Asia. Pagodas, untouched nature, and welcoming locals lure visitors to the less-traveled ASEAN nation that is home to 135 recognized ethnic tribes — a statistic that excludes the Rohingya.

Demands for a travel boycott of Myanmar have launched in response to international condemnation and media coverage of the Rohingya tragedy. Travelers are pressured to consider whether they’re morally endorsing the Burmese military’s inhumane crimes against the Rohingya by visiting Myanmar. Boycotting may seem like the honorable thing to do, as no one wants to be complacent of human suffering, but the reality is that a sanction against Myanmar isn’t noble and won’t positively impact the humanitarian crisis. Here’s why:

Understanding the Rohingya exodus.

The Rohingya are a Muslim community that has resided in the Rakhine state of northern Myanmar for centuries and continually faced discrimination and brutality. This has resulted in a mass exodus — an estimated one million Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar. The mistreatment of Rohingya was labeled “ethnic cleansing” in 2013 by the Human Rights Watch. The United Nations reflects similar views and has labeled the Rohingya as the most persecuted minority on earth. Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, described the situation as a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.

The world has been paying attention to the development of the ethnic persecution of Rohingya after an incident on August 25th. The Burmese government claims that security outposts were attacked by the Rohingya militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) which is recognized as a terrorist organization. Since then, the Burmese military has been actively eradicating Myanmar of the Rohingya.

Violence towards the Rohingya existed long before the current global concern of genocide. Some trace the conflict back to World War II when Rohingya fought along the British and Rakhine Buddhists supported the occupying Japanese. Myanmar was previously under military domination for 50 years during which Rohingya were not permitted to leave the Northern Rakhine State, and other Burmese were not allowed to enter the region. Rohingya have been denied basic human rights including higher education and health care for decades. They were previously required to commit to not having more than two offspring.

Members of the Rohingya society have been denied citizenship in Myanmar since the 1974 Emergency Immigration Act and again in 1982 under the Burmese Citizen Law which reinforced the governing military’s stance that Rohingya are unwelcomed illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Rohingya are entirely stateless and do not even exist according to Burmese rhetoric. The term Rohingya alone recognizes that they are a minority group and thus the phrase is hardly used in Myanmar. Instead, many Burmese refer to the group by what is known as a derogatory racial slur in Myanmar: “Bengali”.

The hate towards the Rohingya has been positioned by international media as a Muslim vs. Buddhism agenda adding to increasing global Islamophobia. The issues go beyond religion — it is rooted in citizenship rights such as government support, education, and job opportunities. Many Muslim Burmese live in peace in major cities such as Yangon and Mandalay where there are many Islamic communities.

Doctors Without Borders conducted a field survey and found that, at minimum, 6,700 Rohingya Muslims were murdered by Burmese security forces during the eruption of violence last August and September. In contrast, the Burmese Office of the State Counsellor claims the death toll is closer to 432. It’s difficult to verify the narrative, tally the dead, or gauge the damage, as both journalist and aid workers are banned from entering the area.

The information reported by trusted news outlets has been gathered from satellite imagery and interviews with Rohingya who have survived the dangerous journey to the refugee camps in Bangladesh. Entire communities have lost their homes, livestock, and fields of produce due to fires started by the military. Extradited Rohingya have reported that Burmese military members have gang-raped women and savagely murdered children. According to the Burmese forces, the recent offensive against Rohingya is meant to target terrorism, but most victims from the ongoing massacres have been unarmed villagers, not Rohingya insurgents. Burmese officials continuously claim that these stories are exaggerated.

Do travel boycotts lead to change?

Considering that the systematic violence towards Rohingya has been happening for the better part of 50 years, the simple answer is no. Although there was never an official ban on travelers entering Myanmar, pressure from Western governments urged travelers to avoid visiting the country. During this time of minimal tourism in the nation, horrific war crimes continued to occur. The unofficial travel boycott didn’t affect the Burmese military or change their attitude towards Rohingya.

A travel boycott won’t encourage the militia to stop the pogrom of Rohingya. The conflict has been ongoing for decades and is gaining more attention in part thanks to foreign visitors raising awareness and media meeting demands for information about the Rohingya. This exposure of the horrid actions of the military would not have happened, nor will it continue to happen, should Myanmar be sanctioned by foreign nations.

A travel boycott would further endanger the Rohingya. By isolating the country, the military would be able to discreetly continue to cleanse Myanmar of Rohingya without being held accountable. A travel boycott would eradicate the progress being made towards exposing the actions of the Burmese junta. The Burmese people are also not a reflection of their military. It would be Burmese civilians, not the military, that are the collateral damage of a travel boycott.

A decline in tourism simply won’t change the Rohingya emergency but could severely worsen the situation. “A tourism boycott wouldn’t help the Rohingya as it may antagonize some of the hardliner bigots even more,” says Yin Myo Su, Founder of the Inle Heritage Foundation. A panacea must be reached but a tourist boycott would provide no aid to the Rohingya. It would be dangerous and catalyze blaming Rohingya for a drop of tourism in Myanmar.

Burmese-American and frequent traveler Mary Marstonshares that, “a travel boycott may make the person or group instating it look good, but it’s not really helping anyone but their own moral compasses.” To boycott is a sign of extreme privilege. Travelers may elect to spend their tourism dollars in another country, but the locals that rely on foreign spending for their income won’t easily find other opportunities to earn a living in nations plagued with poverty.

Mi Mi Soe, a local guide for Sa Ba Street Food Tours, explains that “Myanmar has only recently opened up to the world after decades of the people being closed off. It is important that we find our place alongside the rest of the world and try to find solutions together, rather than push each other away again. Not every person in the country is involved or kept up-to-date on the conflict, many ordinary people do not want to see pain between any race or religion.”

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