Foreign tourists have been urged to avoid visiting Myanmar after the junta announced plans to open up the country despite widespread rights abuses and violence, including kidnappings and killings by the military, as well as shortages food and regular power outages.
More than a year after taking power and ousting Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s military has announced plans to reopen for tourism and resume international flights on April 17.
“I wouldn’t suggest anyone go there,” said Michael Isherwood, chairman of the Burma Humanitarian Mission and program director for the charity Backpack Medics. “If Burma reopens to tourists, it is above all for the benefit of the junta”, which oppresses the population.
When there were rumors of a reopening late last year, Tin Tun Naing, the planning, finance and investment minister of Myanmar’s ousted national unity government, said to the Straits Times that now was not the time for sightseeing and urged people not to visit.
Myanmar closed its borders, like many countries, to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in early 2020. At that time, an elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi ruled the country, but a military coup in February 2021 saw that power ceded. Resistance groups emerged and since then the Southeast Asian country has been rocked by violence, protests and economic collapse.
UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet said last month that the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar continued to expand amid systematic brutality by security forces. “The economy is on the verge of collapse. More than 14.4 million people are now assessed as being in humanitarian need,” she said, predicting that “food shortages will increase sharply in the coming months.”
The British government “currently advises against all but essential travel to Myanmar”, indicating the risk of being arbitrarily detained or arrested.
The opening to tourism could signal a return to normal as “Burma is anything but normal these days”, Isherwood said, citing random arrests, the burning of villages, rapes and extrajudicial executions in the ethnic and border areas.
According to the UN Human Rights Council, more than 1,600 people have died at the hands of security forces, 12,500 have been detained, 44,000 have been displaced and 14 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. Hundreds of children are also being held for ransom in unknown locations.
Last year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) tried to negotiate a peace plan with the junta government, although little progress was made moving forward .
The reopening to tourism was “an effort to promote a narrative of control and globalization… an effort to establish the de facto authorities as controlling the country, being legitimate”, said an aid worker living in Myanmar, who requested the anonymity for security reasons. .
Tourists mean stability, said Bertie Alexander Lawson, CEO of Myanmar-based travel agency Sampan Travel, and an image of stability is likely one the authorities want to project, he added. The security risk is higher now than a few years ago, Lawson said, but safe travel was possible “if you go with an operator who takes the risk seriously.”
Visitors should, however, be informed of the context they are entering and calculate whether they will have a positive impact on communities in Myanmar, he said.
Jochen Meissner, founder and director of Yangon-based travel agency Uncharted Horizons Myanmar, advised against travel. “Even here [in Yangon]every day there are bombings or assassinations, [and] lots of army in the streets.
While the junta government will likely make sure major tourist attractions are safe, Meissner said he would not encourage anyone to visit for a vacation.
Only people vaccinated against Covid-19 will be able to enter the country before having to undergo a one-week quarantine with two PCR tests. Other challenges tourists will face include lack of access to cash, following the collapse of the banking system and power outages. “There are large parts of Yangon that are in complete darkness one evening, so I’m not sure it will be very conducive to tourist travel,” the aid worker said.
Parts of the country, including Kayah State and Chin State, once popular with tourists, will also be banned, Lawson said. In these areas, there are reports of deteriorating living conditions with limited access to water, electricity and internet.
Meissner said, “All is not right here.”