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Last Exit Magazine « Sightseeing With The Enemy

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[published: April 02, 2008]

Sightseeing With The Enemy

An aspiring foreign correspondent attempts to cross into isolated Myanmar just in time for the revolution.

My goal was to be in Myanmar when the regime fell. I was backpacking around Southeast Asia and had concocted a plan to legally enter the country from northern Thailand on a tourist visa. Tensions were rising, and I was ready to begin my prestigious career as a foreign correspondent by covering the clashes between monk protestors and government troops, and hopefully the impending collapse of the corrupt military junta that had ruled the country for decades.

Thousands of monks were protesting in the streets, defying the fascist government on a grand scale not seen since similar protests occurred in 1988. Revolution seemed imminent, though there was also a chance that the government would react like it did during the last period of upheaval and massacre nonviolent protestors. The country was on the edge.

The plan to infiltrate Myanmar was not motivated solely by professional aspirations. There were personal reasons, as well. I fancied myself as someone with revolutionary ideals, someone who wanted to witness history firsthand instead of reading about it. The events in Myanmar exemplified the reasons I wanted to be a journalist: to shed light on the injustices of the world and those rebelling against them. While most kids my aged wished they could go back in time to see their team win the Super Bowl or to hear their favorite band’s last concert, I wished I could join the revelers in Berlin as the Wall came down, or in Spain when Franco died. An entire nation of long-suffering people was literally about to be handed freedom in one moment. I couldn’t think of a more worthy experience.

I assumed I’d be one of the only aspiring writers there, and simply being there would give me a leg up on the competition. Unfortunately the perfect plan met an early demise when my visa application was denied. Nonetheless, I would soon cross the Thai/Myanmar border, but only for an hour, and I would accomplish nothing besides once again getting caught up in a traveler’s moral quandary with no clear-cut solution.

My visa application was denied while most of the world was waiting with bated breath. I was quite off put. My name no longer had any chance of soon appearing in boldface, my face as an exquisitely detailed cartoon in the Wall Street Journal. To make matters worse, the military junta ruling Burma had cracked down harshly on dissidents and the revolution no longer seemed remotely forthcoming. I tried to cloud my disappointment by settling into the routine hedonistic delights of the Southeast Asia backpacker trail, focusing on Scandinavian twentysomethings and Chang beer instead of politics and career breaks.

Had I been a braver man, with any semblance of an idea of what I was doing, or of moderate resources, or even a touch of experience, I might have tried to sneak into the country or finagle my way into a visa, but I didn’t. I didn’t even attempt to do so. Instead, the only time I set foot in Burma and came into contact with the regime was on a border run in northern Thailand.

Relations between Burma and Thailand have long been somewhat hostile, though they have improved of late. The border region, however, is a hotbed of conflict. It has long been associated with violence, narcotics trafficking, human trafficking and gem smuggling, not to mention the Burmese rebel groups that the Thai government, while not condoning, allows to operate in Thai territory. Refugee camps overpopulated with those escaping the atrocities perpetrated by the Burmese government dot the border as well.

Crossing into Burma from the Thai border is forbidden. The only legal way to enter Burma is to fly. The only exception, however, is a loophole that allows those coming from Thailand on a border run to purchase a one-day visa.

The Thai visa system follows a strange set of rules that forbid foreigners from staying in Thailand for more than 30 days at a time, and no more than 90 days in a period of six months. Those who want to stay longer than 30 days simply make a border run to Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia or Burma. They leave Thailand for the day, officially, and return with a fresh 30-day visa. Since I was currently in the north of Thailand, with only one day left on my visa, I elected to go to Burma for the day. “Day” is slightly deceiving. I was only in Burma for about an hour.

Currently, there is much debate regarding the morality of visiting Burma. In late February, the United Kingdom-based Trades Union Congress, Tourism Concern and Burma UK called for a boycott of the Lonely Planet guidebook agency. Spokespeople for the groups labeled visiting Burma unethical and said that merely having a guidebook published regarding travel to Burma encouraged travelers to venture there and served to condone the regime. There argument centered on the fact that most of the money spent by tourists in Burma is rerouted to the military budget.

Many say that tourists, since they are forced to pay fees and support government owned businesses, are contributing to a fascist and inhumane regime. Nobel Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected prime minister who was deposed and imprisoned once commented, “Tourism to Burma is helping to prolong the life of one of the most brutal and destructive regimes in the world.” Reports have also confirmed that the government used forced labor to prepare sites for tourists.

Others argue that foreigners simply bearing witness to the situation, as well as spending money that reaches the hands of destitute Burmese civilians, far outweigh the aforementioned cons. Thant Myint-U, author of the book River of Lost Foot Steps regarding the boycott of Burma, said: “Isolation is the regime’s default condition. It is what fuels the present system. Burma might not become a democracy overnight, but it will certainly improve with more outside interaction. Would Indonesia be better off if no one had visited during its 30 years of military rule?”

I, on the other hand, did not have the luxury of a two-sided argument. I was barely even entering the country, let alone observing the condition in which the citizens survived. I was simply walking 20 meters into the country, handing a Burmese official 10 dollars for a stamp on my passport, and leaving. I was directly contributing to the regime, witnessing nothing and putting no money in to the local economy. The morality debate suddenly became much more simplified.

I had chosen to do the border run with the help of a tour agency that shepherded eight or so people from Chang Mai to the Burmese border to renew their Thai visas. We crossed over from the Thai town of Mae Sai into Tachileik, Burma. The border area was bustling, though it reeked of desperation. The river banks that separated the two countries were flooded with rubbish and refuse. Burmese orphans and beggars littered the streets on both sides, forced into a life of want by the cruelty of those that saw fit to keep their own people practically enslaved. Old Burmese women wearing traditional yellow face paint loitered and sold fresh river crabs and trinkets. I assumed most were refugees.

At the checkpoint to receive an exit stamp from Thailand, I noticed a monk entering Burma. His fellow monks were being slaughtered, their temples raided with brutal efficiency. I wanted to ask him why, what type of courage or necessity possessed him to enter Burma at a time like this, but fear paralyzed me.

I made my way across the bridge and into the official Burmese border patrol office, where the officials photographed me for government records. I paid my fee of ten dollars and received my stamp.

Coming face-to-face with officials who worked for a totalitarian government that practiced intolerable cruelty jarred me a bit. I wondered how much they knew, how complicit they were in the government’s actions, how they could support a system that resulted in so much suffering among their brethren. It was certainly possible they didn’t know much, considering the austere grip the Burmese government held over the media, but surely they had to be somewhat aware. Questions circulated in my mind as I scowled for their cameras, yet it wasn’t the first time I had encountered this type of situation.

On a trip through Sudan in 2006, I camped in the yard of a sailing club in Khartoum one night. Besides my fellow Western travelers, a number of old, officious-looking Sudanese men sat around picnic tables watching the Africa Cup soccer matches on an outdoor television. Eventually we got to speaking with these men, as they shared moonshine and marijuana with us. In a country where both of these offenses are punishable with severe jail sentences, these men did so openly, and without any fear. I reasoned they had to have some level of prestige to flaunt their illegalities so openly.

My suspicions were confirmed a few hours later when one of the old men alerted me that he had previously been a diplomat stationed in the United States. Back then, I either lacked fear or tact or both, so I questioned them about the situation in Darfur. One gentleman told me, “It is the same in every society, people get along with each other but within different races there are prejudices, and a small portion of the people are really just extreme.” Another commented that he did not know much about the situation.

Later in the night they laughingly told another Westerner that with the keffiyeh wrapped around his face he resembled a janjaweed, their name for the Arab militias perpetrating the genocide. The comment disturbed me and the marijuana clouding my senses paved the way for a spirited internal debate. How they could make light of the situation while a genocide was taking place within their borders, under their watch? Was I merely being overly sensitive? Could humor simply be their way of dealing with the tragic circumstances?

Something didn’t sit right, and I went to bed that night thinking about the premise put forth by Daniel Goldhagen in Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Goldhagen argues that average Germans were well aware of and either supported or condoned the actions of the government during the Holocaust. Could the same be said for the Sudanese and the Burmese I had encountered? Given these circumstances, might every employee of the government be seen as a tool of a brutal regime? And more importantly, was it even ethical to journey to these countries, even if you’re on your own personal fact-finding mission?

I wanted to visit these places, had been to them already, enjoyed them, but would I have said the same about Nazi Germany in 1940 had I visited? I struggled for an answer. Would it have been more legitimate to go, to witness the situation and spread awareness? Would awareness even have brought any changes? While the Nazis had done a good job of keeping their practices mostly secret, the world is well aware of the actions of Sudan and Burma. People know about the atrocities, yet nothing is done. Awareness has done little to alleviate to the pain and suffering of the people.

I soon realized that my presence had little effect on the people of Burma and the future of the repressive regime, positive or negative. The truth of the matter that travelers and tourists never do. Anyone traveling to a disreputable country should, of course, show proper respect for the locals and attempt to help in any way possible, but it is not the responsibility of the traveler to set a precedent in regards to foreign policy. A traveler’s nature is to seek, to see, to search out. The act of visiting a country is not a show of support for its policies; rather it is in act of curiosity about how the world works, and how the people live.

It is up to the leaders of government and business to set those precedents. If the TUC and the other organizations wish to take a stand against the military junta, they should do so by protesting against the Chinese government that finances the Burmese military, or the oil companies that pour in the money that keeps the government afloat. The Lonely Planet protest is well-stated but misguided. If every traveler who meant to go to Burma neglected to do so, not much would change. But if our governments and business leaders refused to deal with them, I have no doubt the revolution would be forthcoming, and maybe I’d finally be able to realize my dream and join in the celebrations in the streets of Rangoon.

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