Visa Nightmares of a Myanmar Citizen

Bagan, Myanmar (Photo by Ong Soo Ling)

The first time I was denied from boarding a plane, I did not have the correct visa to enter Europe through Istanbul. (Turkey is not part of the Schengen agreement, and so visitors have to apply for a separate visa to enter the country. I overlooked this and only applied for the Schengen visa.) I vividly remember a mixture of fury and disappointment as I separated from my American travel partner at the airline counter at Newark Airport. I was 20, careless, and deservingly defeated.

The second time I was denied from boarding a plane, I was told that I needed a visa to transit in Toronto for my Air Canada flight from São Paulo to Boston. The transit was no longer than 2 hours, and I had no intention to stay in Canada or leave the airport. I would have never chosen this flight route, if not for the fact that it was the cheapest option available. My end destination was Boston, to which I had a valid visa for, and yet I could not get on the flight. The airline staff plainly explained to me at the counter that it is just the way things are. Canada only allows a select few nationalities (Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan & Philippines) to enter the country without a transit visa, and I simply did not qualify. I was 22, a lot more careful, and still very much defeated.

As a Myanmar passport holder, the fear of immigration counters and border control has always been present in my travels. My parents successfully instilled the mantra of “look normal, act normal” in me since young, as if I were an anomaly that could easily alarm an immigration officer. They are cautious people who accept a reality that we, as Myanmar citizens, can be denied visas and travel anytime.

I hate this fear.

I have often challenged them as being paranoid, and told them that the world was changing for us. But at that instance, stranded alone in São Paulo International airport and with no family members awake due to a time difference of 9.5 hours, I hoisted my white flag high.

A visa. A piece of travel document, implemented hugely after the First World War to grant a foreign visitor entry or permission to remain in another sovereign state, was what differentiated me from the next passenger. A visa was what allowed and disallowed me movement between countries, or in this case a flight transit. A visa was all it took for me to revisit all the fears that my parents carried on their shoulders through the decades of political turmoil in Myanmar. All these fears, I finally admitted, were not unfounded or unwarranted.

Because the fact is this: the world still does not know Myanmar or trust Myanmar.

After the decades of isolation under a military junta, my country is a mysterious wildcard that many people either do not know about or are simply speculating about. Even after the many progressive reforms in our recent history, Myanmar is still pretty much characterized by a thick unfamiliarity and alienness in the global arena. Apart from the regional ASEAN coalition, few other countries see Myanmar as a worthy strategic partner, and foreign relations are currently slow to bulk. In other words, it is hard not to feel like we are nobodies in international affairs, and therefore mean little to other countries. To an average citizen like me, this translates to an overwhelming sense of caution and self-deprecation when traveling internationally.

There have been many times when I am questioned for the validity of my passport. (Yes, not the visa, but the passport itself.) More often, I am simply held for a longer time at the immigration counter, just so an officer could double check with another officer about the correct procedure. Mostly, the doubts and suspicions I get are fairly mild, and in comparison, I am so fortunate. Just being able to converse fluently in English affords me tremendous immunity that my parents will never confidently pull off.

It is confusing and disappointing to not feel proud of my passport.

My citizenship to Myanmar is such an incredibly dear part of my identity that I am not willing to forego in the foreseeable future, and I have come to accept that visa nightmares are part and parcel of holding on to this passport. However, I do not accept that this has to be the way forward. I question the tainted nature of international travel that sees citizens of certain countries as criminals, and discriminates based on stereotypes, and worse, lack of knowledge.

Perhaps it is that I am still far too young to calmly accept the terms and conditions for international travel as a citizen of a developing country (or a “third-world” country — a term that I do not particularly favor), but I am confident that my negative experiences are not unique to me. The significance that a piece of travel document has for national security and border control is undeniable, but it is high time we devise a better way to utilize it without foregoing an individual’s freedom and dignity.

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