Myanmar’s Rohingya tragedy and the traveler’s dilemma

The world has seen a lot of horrific events this year. The Syrian civil war is still going on, Yemen is being torn apart as millions of its people face starvation, and deadly terrorist attacks have taken place from the US to France to Somalia. Closer to home, here in Asia, the expulsion of the Rohingya minority from Myanmar has been a terrible tragedy. Over 550,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee their homes and hundreds were killed by their own country’s military, in August and September, ending up in crowded refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. As a result, the UN has condemned Myanmar for ethnic cleansing, and many countries have also criticized it. Myanmar leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s aura as a human rights icon has also been shredded. While the situation has calmed down a bit, the fact is over 550,000 Rohingya are trapped in Bangladesh refugee camps and unable to return to Myanmar.

Myanmar has become a rising star on the world travel scene in the past few years as it has opened up to the world and shed its authoritarianism. I went there myself a couple of years ago. I thought that its opening up politically and economically was a very positive development, especially the fact that it allowed democratic parliamentary elections to be held just years after. But sadly, its democratization has not prevented the violent actions against the Rohingya.

There are no sanctions against going to Myanmar and the conflict is in Rakhine state, on the country’s western border away from Yangon and the main tourist attractions. But the actions of the military, which used to govern the country and still retain a lot of control, in killing and forcing out the Rohingya should put a stop to Myanmar’s image as an idyllic and tranquil travel destination for the time being. Travelers should consider whether they want to visit a country that is engaged in widespread, targeted violence against a vulnerable subset of its own people. While some might think a distinction should be made between the country and its people, the sad fact is that a lot of Myanmar people support the campaign against the Rohingya, which is a probably factor behind Aung San Suu Kyi’s reluctance to condemn the violence.

Personally I would rather not visit a country in which the government is perpetuating large-scale acts of violence and repression against people. For the same reason, I am not too interested in visiting Xinjiang or Tibet in China, and neither would I have wanted to go to South Africa, actually a fantastic country in the current era, during apartheid. But if one were to go, I hope travelers can be aware of the Rohingya tragedy and be mindful of the government’s deliberate actions.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority who have lived in Rakhine for supposedly hundreds of years but the Myanmar authorities see them as foreigners — Bengali migrants from Bangladesh who came over during the British colonial era. As a result, the Rohingya are virtually stateless in their own country, being unable to properly integrate into society due to being banned from getting national IDs, and using regular social services like education and medical care. The state has cracked down on Rohingya several times in the past few decades but these have worsened in the last few years. Between 2012 and 2015, violence against the Rohingya resulted in droves of them fleeing in boats to countries like Thailand and Malaysia, who rejected them initially, and photos of wretched, starved Rohingya on crowded boats filled international media.

It is also notable that regional body ASEAN, as well as China, which itself is certainly no human rights champion, and India, has not spoken out at all against Myanmar. To me, this just emphasizes the toothlessness of ASEAN and its feeble mandate for regional cooperation beyond economic trade. This is an attitude not just limited to Southeast Asia, but to much of Asia in general.

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2 thoughts on “Myanmar’s Rohingya tragedy and the traveler’s dilemma

  1. Good post, people should be educated.

    I know exactly what you mean about travel to countries with human rights violations… and travelers shouldn’t be naive. At least make informed decisions. There’s something really insufferable about clueless Instagram posts form backpackers at a temple in Myanmar!

    The world is awfully complex though. Like China, for instance, is such a big country that I kind of conclude it is fair to compartmentalize. Living in a modern big city seems fine, but when visiting Tibet or Xinjiang as you say the oppression is so in your face and it’s just plain wrong to economically support by tourism.

    These are tricky things my own circle has to consider, like with visiting Israel or working in Saudi Arabia. And not just in hot spots in Asia or the middle east, even the United States unfortunately supports terrible regimes around the world.

    What else to say? Just hope the world turns around soon, and people can do their part however small to stay informed and support free humanity.

    Like

    1. Thanks for the great comment, Ray. Definitely, travelers should at least be aware of major issues in countries they visit, especially tragedies and conflicts. As the world becomes more turbulent, that means a bigger need to stay informed and make difficult decisions from time to time. I agree that for large and complex countries like China, compartmentalizing is indeed better.

      Like

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