My recent decision to visit Myanmar was a controversial one. Although I received numerous positive messages from foreigners and locals who were grateful that I showcased the beautiful parts of Myanmar, including the culture, people, and scenery, I also heard my fair share of condemnation and criticism — namely, that I was wrong for not taking a stance against Myanmar’s ethnic violence by boycotting Myanmar. So I want to offer my explanation about why I travel to difficult places like Myanmar, and why I didn’t join the Myanmar travel boycott (and my thoughts on other country-wide tourism boycotts).
I’ve never received as much hate mail as I did surrounding my trip to Myanmar.
I don’t say this to receive your pity, or to get your blood pressure pumping (as it did mine for a brief period of time). And to be fair, I also never received so many positive messages from people who were genuinely curious about Myanmar, inspired to travel there, or appreciative of its beauty.
Rather, the angry and aggressive messages offered me lessons in rebuilding confidence in myself — not just who I am, but also why I do what I do — and in not letting the ill-informed opinions of strangers inhibit me from moving forward. And I’m grateful for that.
But these messages also gave me another opportunity: to reiterate the mission behind my blog, my travels, and, in many ways, my life. And to, hopefully, challenge you to rethink your preconceptions about the things and people and places that are dark and scary and so very foreign.
Why I Travel
One of my goals in traveling is to shine light on what some might think are dark or scary or unfamiliar places in the world. I’ve found that even in the places I’ve visited that are drenched in poverty, human rights abuses, and political or religious or [fill in the blank] conflict, there are still glimmers of goodness that, personally, I think shouldn’t be overlooked.
Individual people are not and should not be defined by their governments. I know there are many people, even in the Western world, with whom that resonates these days. The people I’ve encountered in places like Rwanda, Thailand, Indonesia, and yes — even Myanmar, were overwhelmingly kind & peaceful, challenging fears and breaking down stereotypes imposed on those places by a suspicious and condemning outside world.
In Rwanda, a country infamous for its horrific 1994 genocide that during which almost 1 million people were slaughtered, I encountered dozens of young people who dedicated their time and resources to bridging cultural divides, learning and educating peers about human rights, and working with local government to ensure representation for marginalized people groups.
In Thailand, a country notorious for its rampant sex trade and debaucherous city culture, I met women who had emerged from the trafficking industry to not only change their own lives, but to help similarly-situated women change theirs. Women that despite their traumas and impossibly difficult life circumstances, were working tirelessly to combat the human slavery from within the darkest corners of their city.
In Indonesia, a country known for its poverty and for a history of violent attacks against religious minorities, I’ve felt overwhelming acceptance from locals, despite coming from a different culture and worshipping a different God. In one of the poorest rural areas of Bali, I had locals spend hours helping me get medical care after an accident left me stranded and injured in the mountains. I’ve learned more about patience and kindness during my time in Indonesia than I have anywhere else in the world. I receive the warmest smiles from Hindu locals who guard the parking lots and provide security for my Christian church each Sunday.
And even in Myanmar, a country condemned for its past and present ethnic violence, locals went out of their way to demonstrate trust and kindness without expecting anything in return. An off-the-clock taxi driver spent an hour helping me contact my hotel and get transportation when my e-bike broke down in the middle-of-nowhere-Bagan, late at night. When I didn’t have enough cash on hand to pay for a meal in Nyaungshwe, the restaurant owner smiled and told me not to worry about it — to come back tomorrow or whenever I had the money. When I abandoned a bag of groceries on my bike seat for an hour in a busy shopping market, I returned only to find the groceries still sitting there untouched.
Along with the wonderful people I’ve met in some of the most heavily stereotyped, condemned, and feared places of the world, I also have been stunned by the beauty of the places themselves. There’s the beautiful architecture built out of the imaginations of histories of people; the beautiful foods showcasing local creativity and hospitality even in the poorest areas; the beautiful natural landscapes placed in those parts of the world by God Himself.
It’s all evidence of people (and a God) who, despite poverty, political instability, oppressive government regimes, and other challenging circumstances have chosen to invest in making the world a more beautiful place for present and future generations. Maybe they’re creating something tangible themselves, or maybe they’re working in the tourism industry to show off how proud they are of what their home countries have created throughout human history. Either way, it’s all a reminder to rise above the darkness that clouds the world around us — a reminder that is profoundly important for humans all over the globe.
The Complicated Truth About Tourism Boycotts
The crux of most of my Myanmar-related hate mail was centered around the idea that I was morally flawed and culturally ignorant for traveling to the country (albeit, in much more aggressive words with some more pointed profanities and insults).
Recently, some of the international community have demanded a Myanmar boycott, calling travelers to refuse to step foot in the country. Indeed, it is always a good idea to be cautious about where your tourism dollars are being spent; choosing not to fund state-run airlines, tour agencies, sites, and programs, or organizations that are harmful to the environmental, humans, or animals, is definitely appropriate in these circumstances.
But boycotting an entire country is a different story.
Each person must make his or her own informed decision about whether to visit a country with a corrupt government regime. But I urge you to make this decision based on factual information rather than emotional responses, and to do proper research to ensure your boycott will actually have the positive ethical effect you intend.
In fact, withholding money from a country altogether will often have little effect on the country’s government or military funds, but instead have a tremendous impact on its local citizens. Many people in these developing countries rely on the tourism industry in order to provide a home and food for themselves and their families. In particular, people in Myanmar who have historically made a living through hospitality, as tour guides, or by selling souvenirs to tourists are struggling to survive right now with the drastic reduction in tourism.
Payments between travelers and these tourism workers are often a person-to-person exchange, and boycotting travel to another country can, in some situations, harm innocent civilians more than the government. Instead of a general boycott of an entire country, be intentional about supporting locally-run and privately-owned restaurants, hotels and guesthouses, travel agencies, and transportation companies. Hire self-employed guides at tourist sites, and buy crafts and souvenirs from private artisans. This way you’ll be putting money directly into the hands of the people whom we all want to see thrive, without funding state-run companies and, inadvertently, corrupt governments.
Additionally, tourism can often be one the most effective methods of “backdoor diplomacy” available to the average foreigner. By visiting countries with human rights abuses, poor educational systems, government corruption, and other injustices, travelers are able to facilitate the exchange of ideas and ideals from which locals are otherwise isolated. You as a traveler have the ability to share a different, educated stance on violence, oppression, and human rights. Of course, recognize the seriousness and potential danger of these topics, and that many locals fear criticizing their governments or militaries — be highly sensitive, have conversations in safe places rather than in public, and never be pushy or emotionally-charged.
And remember that this exchange of information is not one-sided. Travelers otherwise isolated from the hardships that so much of the developing world faces, will be forced to grabble with tragic realities that were before only a newspaper headline. It might be a traveler’s only opportunity to come face to face with severe injustice. It might enlighten a traveler to see how the roots of political atrocities often stem from the poverty, lack of education, and misinformation from which underprivileged locals suffer. It might encourage travelers to see humanity between the shadows, and to prompt even more effective, passionate efforts to fight against the injustices. And it might help travelers distinguish between a corrupt and violent government, and the local people who often want nothing more than peace, or who are not informed about political issues.
Finally, it is important to understand the nature and history of the conflict underpinning the tourism boycott. In a country like Myanmar, border violence and human rights abuses targeting the Rohingya have been ongoing for almost 50 years, but only began receiving so much international attention in the last few years. Although recent violent attacks against the Rohingya are deeply troubling and warrant international response, it’s arguable that the heightened spotlight on Myanmar’s ethnic violence in the past several years is, in part, due to an increase in tourism. Generally, with an increase in international tourism comes and increased demand for information about a country, and thus an increased awareness about the issues within that country.
Isolating Myanmar, or other countries in crisis, from the rest of the world may only have unintended and detrimental consequences. A boycott will likely have the effect of suspending a flow of income to the locals who need it most, cutting off that country’s access to more progressive social, political, and environmental ideals, and reducing media attention and international interest in the county. This is counter-productive, and does nothing to create a social climate in which locals are empowered financially, educationally, and by the international community to make better decisions for future generations.
I Still Feel Guilty. What Can I Do?
If I haven’t said it enough, the ethical decision about where to travel is up to you and you alone. Although I personally find that tourism boycotts often do more harm than good, I don’t condemn those who choose to take a political or moral stance in this way — there are highly educated, morally upright people who have done just that.
I do hope, however, that whatever decision you make about the issue is an educated one, and not made on the basis of peer pressure, heightened emotions, or the desire give oneself a moral pat on the back.
If you’re feeling guilty about traveling to a country, or are considering boycotting a country, I’d encourage you to challenge yourself with the following questions:
Do I feel guilty because I’m worried about what others will say or think about my decision to travel to this country? Remember that both sides can add value to the conversation and have meaningful perspectives. But if your intellect and ethics tell you that visiting a country is actually beneficial, don’t let something as insignificant as an angry Instagram comment deter you.
Does my guilt stem from a place of privilege, that allows me to turn my back on complex and painful injustices, spend my money in a different country, and then feel good about myself for taking a public stance? Keep in mind that locals who rely on tourism don’t have this same luxury, and may not as easily find other ways to make a living. Resist the temptation to face complex external conflicts by falling back on a privileged moral high-ground that only serves to make you feel good about yourself.
Have I taken a strong ethical stance based on emotions, without doing background research? Take the time to learn about the country’s issues and history, while really trying to understand whether tourism is actually causing or perpetuating injustices. It’s good that horrible injustices stir in you a sense of righteous anger and motivation to act, but acting out of anger often just leads us to respond ineffectively and without our best judgment.
Am I willing to undertake the responsibility to travel to this country in a sensitive, aware, and proactive way? Do your research, understand the issues, be cautious of where you’re spending money, engage in respectful but intentional conversations with locals, and make an effort to support localized efforts within the country to promote social and environmental progress. Another part of this responsibility extends beyond the trip itself — when you return home, talk about what you’ve seen and experienced, celebrate the people or organizations you discovered that are doing good in their communities, and promote open and honest dialogue about the country and its issues with your friends and families.
I won’t argue that I have all the right answers, but only that I’m trying, as an imperfect human in an imperfect world, to do my best. I’m trying to make decisions with positive impact, to be open to learning along the way and admitting when I make a mistake, and to invite others to join me as I try to navigate this complex world in a way that honors the One who created it all.
It’s easy for many of us to look at a corrupt country’s injustices, wag our fingers, and turn our backs, saying we will simply not be associated with such evil. I promise you, I understand the temptation to process complex issues in this black-and-white way, because the alternative can feel overwhelming.
It’s indeed much messier, much more difficult, and requires much more humility and intellectual, emotional, and moral strength to step into the mess and engage with the issues in a nuanced and effective way. But, I encourage you to try. And surround yourself with people who will try with you, and think it admirable and good that you’re trying.
As one final note, if you’re really feeling concerned about evil in the world, be sure not to neglect the darkness within yourself. We’re all capable of terrible things given the right circumstances, influences, and misinformation. And the biggest evils all stem from the same “smaller” evils that we so often excuse in ourselves: pride, jealousy, fear, greed, selfishness, anger, judgment, and so on.
And if it’s not already painfully obvious, rudely attacking and judging a stranger’s morality on social media is almost comically hypocritical — don’t be that person. (Actually, as a general rule, just don’t attack anyone on social media ever). Ask questions before forming judgments and responding. “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” (James 1:19).*
I will always do my best to respond to open, thoughtful, genuine questions and to engage in productive dialogue about these complicated issues. If you have any thoughts or questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below.
And if you have any other questions about safety and culture in Myanmar, I discuss these topics and others in my complete Guide To Myanmar.
* Also, the verse “A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions . . . He who answers before listening — that is his folly and his shame” (Proverbs 18:2, 13), and Dr. Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People — “Seek First to Understand” (Habit 5)— provide powerful instruction on the topic.
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