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Safe Gap Year & Burma

At Safe Gap Year our personal experience demonstrates how independent travel can change the lives of participants through the perspective it gives us.

This is often best demonstrated by the work or volunteering undertaken and encounters with local people leading to life-long commitments to projects and charities around the world.

These commitments follow very personal decisions made by the individual; those we have chosen to feature or support are as a result of just such experiences:

 

The Burma Campaign UK

I believe very strongly in the positive influence travel can have on those travelling as well as the communities they visit. However this is not always the case.

Burma is ruled by an illegal military dictatorship, their human rights record is one of the world’s worst and tourism is one of the primary ways that this corrupt government generates foreign exchange. Much of this income is then used by the military to oppress its own people; the list of reported atrocities is a long and disturbing one.

The Burma Campaign UK is a charity campaigning to free Burma from the brutal and corrupt military regime which holds the Burmese people in abject poverty and fear in order to cling on to power.

In 1990 Burma held the first free and fair elections since the military regime came to power. By way of demonstrating exactly how out of touch the military regime was with reality, they believed that the fear they had instilled in the Burmese people would lead to an overwhelming victory.

However the Burmese people once again demonstrated their incredible courage and Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory with over 82% of the votes cast. The military’s response was to place her under house arrest and either imprison, torture or kill most of her party.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, remains under house arrest to this day; despite calls from many world leaders and elder statesman demanding her release.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has made it very clear that she feels it is not in Burma’s interest at this time to have tourists visiting the country.

 

“Burma will be here for many years, so tell your friends to visit us later. Visiting now is tantamount to condoning the regime.”

Aung San Suu Kyi 

 

A snapshot of the atrocities committed by the brutal military regime in Burma reads like one of history’s horror stories from a different generation, but it is happening today:

 

  • Widespread use of forced labour – routinely used in the construction of tourist infrastructure
  • Over 1 million people forcibly moved from their homes
  • At least 2100 political prisoners, many of whom are customarily tortured (January 2010)
  • An army of over 500,000 soldiers (The UK has just over 100,000) of whom 70,000 are child soldiers (more than any other country in the world)
  • The use of rape as a weapon of war against ethnic women and children
  • Nearly half the government budget spent on the military and only 19p per citizen per year, on health care
  • 10% of babies dying before their 5th birthday.

(Source: The Burma Campaign)

 

Burma used to be one of Southeast Asia’s richest countries, exporting many products (including food) which it now has to import. The country has been all but destroyed by a small group of military generals who cling to absolute power through intimidation, brutality, fear, war on their own people and by driving the Burmese people into abject poverty; while lining their own pockets with the millions they have gained by trading with the few countries and big corporations whose morals can surely only reflect those of the military regime itself. 

To add some balance, there are pressure groups who disagree with Aung San Suu Kyi’s request not to visit Burma. The argument generally goes that western influence and interaction with local people will perpetuate change. There is also an argument which suggests that travelling using local services puts foreign exchange in the hands of local people and empowers them.

In many countries they would be right, but Burma is a unique case and I don’t believe this argument is valid, for two good reasons.

People in Burma live in fear, if you talk to a local Burmese person about anything to do with politics they will in generally shy away very quickly and you may well be putting them and their family in danger; politically active people in Burma ‘disappear’ on a frighteningly regular basis.

My second point is that control by the Burmese military is absolute. There are almost no services which you can use without the government issuing a ‘licence’ (for foreigners) and therefore taking a big slice of the income they generate.

It is the right of every individual to choose if going to Burma is the right or wrong thing to do. It is my belief that the will of the only democratically elected leader of Burma is one that represents the views of the Burmese people.

I would however never seek to dictate people’s choice of destination, but only ask anyone planning a trip to Burma to research their trip carefully. Some useful sources of information include:

 

 

Peter Mayhew – Safe Gap Year, January 2010

 

Travel is a privilege and sometimes we need to give something back to thank the people whose countries we visit.