The entrance to the Shan Palace was hidden behind a neglected garden. While I walked past overgrown bushes, some stray dogs barked at me. The palace turned out to be an old mansion, that I imagined once looked grand but was poorly maintained and partly in decay. When I reached the front door, I was invited into the house by a modest but charismatic old woman. As I sat down in the living room, she started to tell the story of the last prince and princess of Hsipaw, whose pictures decorated the walls. It was one of the stories that would come to shape my opinion on the ethics of traveling in Myanmar.
The story of the Shan Palace goes like this. Sao Kya Seng, the former ruler of the Shan state, was arrested on March 3, 1962 — a day after the military coup which marked the starting point of a military rule that would grapple the country for decades. He was falsely accused of financing Shan insurgents and plotting a secession. Reportedly killed during his detention, he has never been seen again. His wife and two children fled to Europe, from where they wrote letters to the government, enquiring about the fate of their husband and father. Until today, the government has not acknowledged the arrest or execution of the prince.
Sao Oo Kya, a nephew of the prince, and his wife Sao Sarm Hpong moved into the palace in 1972. When the government started to allow foreigners into the country in 1996, they opened it to small groups of tourists. In 2005, Sao Oo Kya was arrested and accused of advising a Shan political group banned by the junta and allowing tourists onto the estate without a tourist license. He was sentenced to jail for thirteen years, but released under a general amnesty in 2009. After governmental reforms, the couple reopened the estate to tourists in 2012. Sao Sarm Hpong dedicates her remaining days to educating tourists about the history of Hsipaw and the tragic fate of the former prince.
As Sao Sarm Hpong concluded her story, she explained that she strongly encourages foreigners coming to Myanmar. She believes that the story of the country’s past needs to be known. During my journey in Myanmar, meetings like this convinced me that travelers can play an important role in the development of the country, which has a deeply troubled past that it’s just starting to overcome.
Myanmar was under the rule of an oppressive military junta from 1962 to 2011, during which time gross human rights abuses took place. This was internationally condemned and sanctioned and the country was considered a pariah state. In 2011, the military junta was officially dissolved and in 2015, free elections took place. A government led by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was installed. Yet the army continued to have a firm grip on the country. This was highlighted by an army operation against Muslim Rohingyas in the Rakhine state that started in August 2017 and is still going on. The actions have been labeled as ethnic cleansing and have once again cast a shade over the country’s reputation.
Many travelers boycott Myanmar, arguing that money brought into the country will likely end up in the hands of the military junta and support the corrupt regime. Aung San Suu Kyi herself once called for this boycott, but lifted it in 2010, stating that she “would welcome visitors who are keen to promote the welfare of the common people and the conservation of the environment and to acquire an insight into the cultural, political, and social life of the country while enjoying a happy and fulfilling holiday in Burma”. Since then, tourist numbers have risen, although the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas has caused many travelers to adopt a boycott once again.
In 2017, during a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia, I saw myself faced with the question of whether or not to boycott Myanmar. My conclusion was I did not believe a boycott would aid the development of the country. At the same time, I realized that traveling in a troubled country like Myanmar came with a responsibility: a responsibility to make sure local people would profit from the money I spent as much as possible and a responsibility to make efforts to understand the country’s history and political situation.
I have to admit, I was unable to completely prevent any money from flowing to the government: the visa fee and the entrance fees for major tourist sites are hard to escape. But apart from that, I was able to spend my money locally, by staying in privately owned guesthouses, eating at small local restaurants, and traveling by bus instead of using the government-owned railway system. Getting a good sense of the history and the current political situation was more of a challenge. For obvious reasons, there aren’t any museums on the subject. In order to get a real insight, I had to find people willing and able to talk.
One of those people was Sao Sarm Hpong, the niece-in-law of the last Shan prince. Another one was Lu Maw, one-third of the Moustache Brothers. The Moustache Brothers is a comedy trio that acquired fame using comedy as a weapon: their performances are filled with satirical stabs at the military regime. In 1996, they performed for Aung San Suu Kyi — which led to the arrest of two of the brothers and five years of imprisonment. After their release, they were placed under house arrest and performances were restricted to the confinement of their home. In August 2013, brother Par Par Lay died from kidney failure — allegedly due to lead poisoning caused by polluted drinking water in prison. The two remaining Moustache Brothers continued to perform from their garage.
When I entered the garage, decorated with photos of the Moustache Brothers shaking hands with famous persons, I was seated onto a plastic chair between a handful of other visitors. An energetic Lu Maw soon started the show, narrating his family history and mixing in satirical jokes aimed at the government. It had clearly become a bit of a routine and the dance performances that alternated the stand-up comedy were cute at best. But knowing what price the family paid for protesting the military junta, supporting their cause was what mattered to me. Lu Maw declared that the Moustache Brothers’ international fame protects them: as long as the eyes of the world are upon them, the government will be less inclined to do them any harm.
The last encounter that shaped and strengthened my beliefs took place at an unremarkable small local restaurant. While I was waiting for my lunch, a young man sitting next to me struck up a conversation. He turned out to be an intelligent and ambitious man, working in the legal sector. He enlightened me on some of the legal issues the country is struggling with: Myanmar still has legislation that was created under the military junta. The army currently possesses 25 percent of the seats in Parliament — and since more than 75 percent of the votes in Parliament are required to change the constitution, the army has the power to block any change in the laws.
It’s a complicated problem, but my conversation partner was determined to bring about change: he spent his days teaching and training young people to be future changemakers. He explained he supports foreigners coming to Myanmar because the country desperately needs their knowledge. Myanmar doesn’t have a civil society and is only just starting to build one from scratch. Meanwhile, other countries have years of experience in this field and their knowledge can be of great assistance.
These three meetings taught me more about the country than any museum could. They showed me the strength and resilience of the people of Myanmar. From old people protesting the regime even after having been jailed for it, to young people continuing the push for change, I saw a fighting spirit that deserves to be supported. Although people generally agree it’s now safer than ever to talk about politics and criticize the government, it also became clear that the country’s history continues to trouble today’s politics. Many issues remain unresolved and as the military junta still has major influence, these problems aren’t likely to disappear any time soon. Importantly, foreigners can play a role in helping Myanmar move forward.
Foreigners coming to Myanmar have the opportunity to learn about the history and politics of the country. They can share that knowledge with people in their own countries and create awareness about what’s happening in Myanmar. If the world knows what’s happening, it can pressure for change and force the government to adopt more moderate policies and refrain from committing atrocities. The other way around, foreign knowledge and experience flowing into the country can be of great benefit. While trying to scramble onto its feet, the country needs input from abroad. The people of Myanmar have been isolated for years. Now, they are ready to meet the outside world and push for a better future together.
Each traveler can make a small contribution to the development of the country, but this requires an active effort: an effort to be conscious and mindful of your impact, an effort to try to understand the country’s history and struggles, an effort to support local people fighting for change, and an effort to get their stories out. My advice? Go to Myanmar, listen to the Shan prince’s cousin, visit the Moustache Brothers, and talk to random strangers at local restaurants — and when you leave, continue to tell their stories.