Traveling to Burma? Photographer James Martin Says “Go”
James Martin (www.jamesbmartin.com) has worked as a professional photographer, writer, and guide for more than two decades. In that time he’s produced twenty books, including Planet Ice, Digital Photography Outdoors, Masters of Disguise: A Natural History of Chameleons (with Art Wolfe), North Cascades Crest, and Extreme Alpinism (with Mark Twight). He leads phototours around the world with Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, the Phase One Digital Artists Series, PhotoQuest Adventures, and with Canon Explorer of Light Jennifer Wu. Jim will lead a photo tour to Myanmar in January, 2013 for Photo Quest Adventures.
James: ”In a recent New York Times travel piece, Joshua Hammer grappled with the moral implications of visiting Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. He took it as a given that travel had been totally unacceptable until the recent loosening of the military dictatorship’s grip on the population, reductions in ethnic strife, and the freeing of some political prisoners, most importantly the indomitable Nobel Prize winner Aung Sang Suu Kyi. Now he suggests that the ethical traveler must strive to ensure that no Western cash finds its way to members of the privileged elites.
“He condensed his thesis to a single short paragraph,“Yet the question of whether it is acceptable to visit a country long ruled by a brutal military dictatorship has not gone away. Two years ago the answer was clear; today, it is less so.”
“The answer was clear? This reeks of moral certainty and self-congratulation. I also think it’s completely wrongheaded.
“I’ve been visiting Myanmar regularly for over a decade, and it’s a fascinating country. Bordered by India, China, Laos, and Thailand, it was once the center of the largest empire in SE Asia, comprising the present Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos. Theraveda Buddhism is a powerful force here. Most boys study as monks for part of their lives, and temples ancient and modern are encountered constantly. Hills running north and south on either side of the Irrawaddy plain are home to hill tribes, each with distinctive dress and customs. In the forests along the Indian border live tribes living as they have for thousands of years.
“After more than a century of British rule, Burma gained its independence shortly after World War II. Within a decade, the military had established itself as a dictatorial power until 1987 when Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s party won the first multi-party elections. The military voided the results, put Suu Kyi under house arrest, and ruled with notable harshness. They changed the name of Burma to Myanmar and cut the country off from the rest of the world, a pariah state in the mold of North Korea. Only in the last two years have restrictions abated and the first small steps toward democracy and the rule of law been taken.
“On my first trip to the country, we were greeted by AK-47 toting soldiers upon arrival in a dark hanger, a stark contrast to the friendly clerks who stamp our passports now. There was no doubt that the government was in the hands of brutal, superstitious, and rapacious men. However, it seemed unclear to me that staying away from the country benefited the people in any way.
“Myanmar is desperately poor. What was once the most prosperous of Southeast Asian nations is only now starting to heal from the governance of the Junta. On my visits, I patronized street vendors, small roadside restaurants, taxi drivers, and all manner of small merchant. Although I’m certain a portion of my expenses were diverted to government officials, I was contributing to the economy of the people who valued every kyat.
“Beyond that, the nascent tourist industry provided two inducements to better behavior by the government. First, we were witnesses. Our descriptions of what we saw as travelers and photographers made it past the wall of censors and intimidation. Second, the government discovered it could make money from tourism.
“A closed society has taken a vow of poverty. In the modern world, the creation of real wealth depends on participation in the global economy. If revenue from tourism influenced the military, it could be argued that tourists were the thin wedge that helped break open the society, giving the military officers a taste of what real wealth could be like. The country isn’t changing out of altruism. It’s more likely the engine of progress is greed.
“The arguments against tourism here apply equally to China, Zimbabwe, and Russia. To preserve our unstained consciences, must we steer clear of all regimes that don’t meet our standards? There is nothing more corrosive to oppression than the tweet and the photograph. Brutal regimes shrink from the light that travelers shine on them and their practices.
“I’m thrilled at the changes I’ve witnessed. Seeing posters of Aung Sang Suu Kyi at the entrance to a Bagan temple last year was unthinkable the year before. There are demonstrations without gunfire. The police, once omnipresent and threatening, seemed to have evaporated. The US has lifted some sanctions, and Suu Kyi welcomes tourism. Life here is a far cry from Jeffersonian democracy, but the signs are encouraging.
“Whatever the best ethical path, there’s no doubt Myanmar offers unparalleled opportunities for travelers generally and photographers in particular. The tsunami of tourists that engulfed Angkor Wat in Cambodia is only beginning to build here. The people are warm and inviting. I’ve been welcomed as a friend and treated as such by many Burmese. The scale of Bagan, a plain on the banks of the Irawaddy dotted with temples and stupas large and small, stops you in your tracks, and the rituals and devotions of the golden Schwedagon prove that you are not in Kansas anymore. My life has been enriched by the country and the people. I hope I gave back at least as much as I received.”