Guest Contributor | April 16th, 2011
Should you go to Burma? For the reasons not to, packed in a wry little film starring Jason Schwartzman and Famke Janssen, see this clip.
As you struggle to make up your mind, read Rory Maclean’s Under the Dragon and Benedict Roger’s Than Shwe, Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant. For a light, but surprisingly clever read, try Amy Tan’s Saving Fish from Drowning. Then of course there’s former colonial policeman Eric Blair, aka George Orwell’s Burmese Days.
Still up for it? You’ll need a visa. Not necessarily easy…
The ruling junta renamed Burma “Myanmar”. At a stroke, Rangoon became Yangon and no longer the capital, which is now located in a place few foreigners see in the middle of a country bigger than France. The citizens of Myanmar, one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, are used to arbitrary change. On another morning they woke up to find the national flag had changed back to one that had been in use in the 1940s.
The next question is where to stay. The advice used to be to stay as cheaply as possible, the rational for this, that your money was less likely to find its way into the pockets of powerful cronies. But then it was discovered that plenty of small guest houses were actually owned by them too.
You could argue that big hotels are also big employers, this vital in a nation where three-quarters of the people exist beyond the poverty line. You could also argue that big hotel groups, although they must collude in some way with the regime to be here, also have to have a degree of transparency to be in business in the West.
Those involved in tourism are keen to stress their decent credentials. This from a company offering cruises in beautiful old wooden boats on the mighty Ayeyarwady River (formerly the Irrawaddy). “Above all, sailing the Amara River Cruise, you are supporting the poorest people in Myanmar. For many years a big portion of the profits we generate from our commercial tourism enterprises is used to build up medical and social projects in Myanmar”. This, from the notice next to the bathroom sink in the Aureum Palace Resort; “Awarded Myanmar Green Hotel Standard of Ministry of Hotel & Tourism. Awarded of Myanmar Green Hotel Standard of Myanmar Marketing Committee…In terms of socio-development, this hotel has a huge involvement, such as staff children education, staff education, including school fees on the hotel expenses, including some staff schooling abroad.”
In Burma, it is not a case of “you pays your money, you takes your choice” because you may not be fully aware of the choice you are making.