Is It Safe to Vacation in Myanmar (Burma)?
Myanmar (formerly called Burma), is a country filled with natural beauty and wonderful, friendly people, yet it is only recently that the country has been widely available for travel by foreigners. Many who are considering travelling to this nation have already asked the two most pertinent questions: Is it safe to travel to Myanmar? And is ethical to vacation there?
Below, we will go into stark detail about the amount of crime present in Myanmar (according to official reports) and the amount of criminal activity potential vacationers can expect to encounter there (hint: not much). Most importantly, however, we will attempt to show you all the reasons why Myanmar should be on your sightseeing bucket list.
Things to Watch out for
As a visitor to this foreign land, it is important (or at least helpful) to know the political and economic conditions facing the bulk of the populace. This nation of 51 million people is composed of 135 distinct ethnic groups (groups that are recognized by the government) and at least 4 major religions. Therefore, as one can imagine the defining challenge of the Burmese government is to see how its diverse population "can overcome a history of fractiousness in order to live together and hold the country together through political means." [Ref 1.] Since the country's birth in 1948, locals have seen continuous war and infighting between different groups and the government.
This constant internal strife has caused many to ask, "is Myanmar dangerous to travel to?" However, the overall crime statistics for tourists and vacationers are far rosier than for Myanmar locals. People often attribute this to the harsh sentencing characteristic of the Myanmar judicial system and the widely held perception that punishments for crimes against foreigners are punished far more harshly than for locals. For example, Zaw Htwe is a carpenter who was sentenced to three years prison time and hard labor for breaking a $0.35 pane of glass while attending a protest against a quarry company.
Anyway, here is a break down of various crime statistics covering a broad range of criminal activities that could affect tourists in Myanmar.
Is Myanmar Dangerous to Travel to Because of Petty Theft, Larceny and Fraud?
According to the 2017 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, Myanmar / Burma is ranked 130 out of 180 nations; ranked from least to most corrupt. Locals experience corruption and outright larceny from government officials and others on a regular basis (although the government has made many efforts to curb these abuses). However, as mentioned before, tourists are perceived as deserving of special treatment due to harsher punishments.
Therefore, if you ask "Is Burma dangerous to travel to" in terms of theft and fraud, the answer is...it depends on where you go. For example, in Mandalay, Inle Lake, Yangon, and Bagan you may find that many vendors will not be transparent about pricing and will try to price gouge unsuspecting tourists into paying exorbitant amounts for anything ranging from food to basic clothing. Meanwhile, whether you are a tourist or a local, government officials such as police officers may request that you pay bribe or "tea money" in the case of a traffic stop or a security check.
Is Myanmar Dangerous to Travel to Because of Weapons Use and Violence?
In 2012, it is estimated that Burma had a murder rate of about 15.2 per 100,000 people. [ref. 2] Compare that to the United States average of 4.9 per 100,000 people and you could get a sense that violence is a major problem in Myanmar / Burmese society. However, it is important to remember that A.) An extremely small portion of this violence affects foreigners, and B.) armed conflict between the Burmese government and various militias accounts for a high percentage of the discord.
It is widely known that the Burmese government effectively prohibits foreign visitors from visiting certain parts of the country due to the armed conflicts. These areas include but are not limited to: Kayin, Kachin, Shan, and the Rakhine States. It is also noted that these areas are known for the presence of landmines (both old and newly laid).
What About Terrorism?
Terrorism initiated and supported by separatist groups outside of Myanmar like the United Liberation Front of Assam, is a major source of terrorism and hence civilian deaths. These separatist groups are in a seemingly unending war with the Burmese government. However, the conflicts are largely far away from the usual tourist areas.
The Ethics of Travelling to Myanmar: The Plight of the Rohingya
The Myanmar / Burmese government has long been accused of outright brutal treatment of some of its minority groups. However, since 2016 criticism of the government has hit a fever pitch because of a specific group called the Rohingya.
The Rohingya are a minority ethnic Muslim group that the Myanmar government does not officially recognize as part of the country itself. As a result the Rohingya have been denied access to state identification, travel documents, access to basic education and basic social services. Furthermore, they have faced years of discrimination and severe restrictions on their freedoms. Furthermore, violent conflicts between the Myanmar military and the Rohingya have been termed "ethnic cleansing" by some in the international media.
As a result the Rohingya have been forced to flee Myanmar by the hundreds of thousands. They have mostly fled to the neighboring countries of Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia. The reported instances of human rights abuses against the Rohingya may lead some would-be tourists to refrain from spending their tourism dollars in a nation that supports such treachery. However, it is also important to consider the following.
The Myanmar poverty rate varies between 15% in the urban areas and 38% in the rural areas. And ever since 2010, tourism has provided a more or less steady source of much needed income for thousands of Burmese who are just trying to make an honest living. On top of all that, the people of Myanmar are probably some of the most hospitable that you will ever meet. So while there are potentially many human rights abuses within the country; not vacationing there will do nothing to ease the situation. Just something to keep in mind.
Areas of Concern / Locations to Avoid:
The following states within Myanmar have been identified as regions that involve some degree of serious risk to would-be travelers. The danger endemic to these regions has been corroborated by the U.S. State Department, the UK's Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
- Rakhine State: Especially the townships of Maungdaw, Rathedaung, Buthitaung
- Parts of Kachin State
- Paletwa township, in Southern Chin State
- Northern Shan State
Keep in mind that the Myanmar state actively prohibits the average tourist from visiting these dangerous areas of the country. Foreigners who are able to visit these regions are often given special permission by the government itself.
Safety Tips While Traveling:
To wrap up our analysis of Myanmar travel safety and best practices, I would like to share a list of tips; each of which can go a long way to making you trip to Myanmar as trouble-free as possible.
- Do not wander into areas of the country that are restricted by the government (especially by foot). Why? Well, remember when I mentioned landmines earlier in the article.
- Compared to other countries, there is a high incidence of death from snake bites in Myanmar. Therefore, be particularly aware of where you step in forest and tall grass.
- Homosexuality in Myanmar is actually illegal. And the local authorities do enforce laws that are on the books. Only a few years ago, a citizen of the EU was arrested for a "homosexual act" and sentenced to seven years in a Burmese prison.
- Be careful with tattoos and images of Buddha. If you possess or create images of Buddha that are deemed offensive by Burmese religious authorities or sometimes government authorities. It was only in 2016, that a Spanish national was deported from Myanmar after monks found a tattoo of Buddha on his leg.
- In some popular Burmese tourist spots (namely the Hpo Win Daung Caves and Mt Popa) you will encounter species of monkey that will harass you for food until you give in. My advice is to just give them what they want as they might bite you.
- Always ask permission before taking pictures of locals. Don't be surprised if someone requests a small fee before allowing you to take a picture of them.
- Always cooperate with local authorities whether it be at traffic stops or security checkpoints.
1.) United States Department of State: Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Burma (Myanmar) 2017 Crime & Safety Report. https://www.osac.gov/pages/ContentReportDetails.aspx?cid=21412
2.) Wikipedia: Crime In Myanmar. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crime_in_Myanmar