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Burma: good for independent travelers yet?

On the face of it Myanmar has started on its path to come in out of the political cold, in September 2011 a new government stepped up to the plate, social reforms arrived, certain internet sites like YouTube were unblocked. Thein Sein, Myanmar’s president, visited Britain last year for the first time and announced that all political prisoners would be released by the end of 2013.  The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is giving it a fairly good spin, in July removing they’re advice about violent clashes in Mandalay city. Things are definitely on the up for the traveler, numbers up from just over 270,000 for the year in 2010 to over 2,000,000 in 2013, and the political situation is definitely easier than it has been, but have things really changed and is it now safe to be there traveling free.

Well I guess the question of safety depends largely on where you are, and whether you are playing by the Junta’s rulebook. The most difficult areas are Rakhine, and Kachin but all border areas should be treated with caution especially in Shan, Karen, Mon and Kachin States, if venturing in these places make sure you keep abreast of the news.

Terrorism is described on the FCO site as ‘high threat’, but whilst there have been smaller bomb attacks in Yangon, there hasn’t been a major incident since 2010.

If you are playing by the rules however and in a safe area, you will no doubt be OK, certainly I couldn’t find much evidence of hassle for travelers being reported online.  The sort of threats you are more likely to face are those caused by yourself if not being a little bit cautious or respecting local customs. A country with only the slimmest of facilities and resources developed for tourists is of course going to present threats to air-heads.Strong underwater currents at Ngapali for instance coupled with no life guards. Rented diving equipment may not meet the safety standards expected, having perhaps had only cursory maintenance, if any.  I notice though the Canadian government’s travel advice commenting on trekking, saying that trekking in remote parts of the country can attract difficulties with the military, even when having prior permission.

Perhaps it is the military, police and authorities in general that the traveler need to be most cautious around!

On Human rights in Myanmar, the UN is sounding alerts.

“there are worrying signs of possible backtracking”

With continuing arrests and court for people engaged in peaceful assembly, a recent conviction was against Chin activists who were protesting the alleged rape of a woman by a soldier. People are facing intimidation, threats and attacks if voicing opposition to proposed new laws concerning interfaith marriages and religious conversion, excessive use of force by the police to break up protests against such things  as land grabbing and forced evictions.

The recent violence in Mandalay and other parts of the country may have apparently subsided, hence the FCO decision to lift the ‘violent clash’ advice but religious and ethnic tensions are still hot beneath he surface.  The special UN rapporteur responsible for the comments already mentioned says there are deep divisions and a growing polarization between the Muslim and Buddhist communities. And he notes hate speech and incitement to violence is spreading.

As for the areas effected by the FCO advice against all but essential travel, religious and ethnic tensions are still anything but under the surface, and conflict can escalate at any moment. On the 14th of this month (Aug 14), an alliance of rights groups released documentation of 103 cases of human rights abuse that have occurred since the start of The Democratic Voice of Burma this includes, killings, torture, and sexual assault committed by the Burmese military.

The Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (Burma) says in spite of Thein Sein assertion that the end of 2013 would see the release of all political prisoners, many individuals are still incarcerated and there are approximately 114 accused activists with reservations for Burma’s jails, or rather awaiting the outcome of outstanding trials. 2014, has seen a rise in politically motivated arrests and their appears to be a reversal beginning of the the democratic progress that it has been making. Basic individual freedoms, particularly in the arena of the rights of media professionals is on a slippery slope. Journalists are being prosecuted again, a world wide trend perhaps, in the wake of a government perhaps tired of the cost of reform. The UN has commented on four journalists and an editor of Unity Journal having been convicted for ten years’ imprisonment with hard labor, in response to which charges have been instigated against a further 50 journalists who staged a silent protest against the verdict.Intimidation is becoming the norm, most recently for journalists, trying to report on the recent violent incidents in Mandalay.

Circumventing internet censorship is not allowed in Myanmar, not such a big deal for the average traveler but it is suggestive of a heavy hand attitude from the government. Under law cybercafes must keep records of customers’ activities and the police have easy access to this. But in practice many cafe owners can be found helping their users to circumvent censorship. According to Freedomhouse.org some cybercafes have been instructed to install CCTV cameras to monitor users.

Visas/Border Crossings

So the current situation is that the Myanmar embassy in London accepts applications by post and in person. You can download an application form from the Myanmar embassy site.  But an approval system will soon be available online, supposedly from 1st of September, whereby you are granted approval and receive the visa upon arrival. Approvals will be granted via a new site myanmarevisa.gov.mm Up until quite recently it has only been feasible to fly into Burma at Yangon. However things have/are changing and entry points are beginning to open up, one should note though that border crossings tend to open and close according to the politics of the day, and are by no means guaranteed to be open.  The crossings to research depending on your requirements, though they may not all be suitable for all visa types or nationalities, are:

  • Mae Sot(Thai)/Myawaddy(Burma),
  • Mae Sai(Thai)/Tachilek(Burma),
  • Ranong(Thai)/Kawthaung(Burma) by sea,
  • Ban Nam Pu Ron(Thai)/Tiki(Burma)
  • Singkhorn (Thai)/ Mergui(Burma)
  • Three Pagodas Pass in Kanchanaburi(Thai)/Phayatongsu(Burma)
  • Ruili(China)/Muse(Burma),
  • Tamu (India)/Moreh (Burma)

Wanting Inspiration?

The most useful blogs for Myanmar when looking for inspiration might be found amongst this short list;

So is Myanmar on Green? or is the road still at Red?

If you have a view on this, particularly if a recent visitor, let us hear your thoughts.

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