It’s generally recognised that tourism can aid a country’s economic development, and as such it’s welcomed in most nations and particularly in developing countries. However, even the most well-intentioned Western tourists to Southeast Asia still tout an immense amount of privilege with their passports, allowing them to treat many countries as their playgrounds while the reality for many residents is one of state repression and abuse. Places like Thailand and Myanmar may be popular with backpackers, but it’s important to examine the moral implications of visiting countries that enact violence on their citizens.

From the sprawling chaos of Bangkok to the laid-back paradise of Krabi, Thailand has no shortage of destinations for any traveller’s bucket list. Tourism forms a huge part of Thailand’s economy — in 2016 it accounted for 17.7 per cent of the country’s GDP. Tourists, in contrast to Thai natives, can move freely through the country safe in the knowledge they will return to the freedoms and comforts they’re accustomed to once their visa expires.

Since the coup of 2014 — its 13th since 1932 — Thailand has been under martial law, led by the (extremely trustworthy sounding) National Council for Peace and Order, while according to a report by Transparency International, 78 per cent of Thai people stated they believe their police force are corrupt. The country’s warped enactment of democracy can be summarised as an unchecked military power pulling the strings while the king acts as a figurehead (the country enacts an incredibly severe lèse-majesté policy, which can mean years of imprisonment for anyone making a critical remark about the monarchy).

The junta’s corruption goes hand in hand with media censorship that works to control public opinion and silence dissent, with many media outlets self-censoring themselves to avoid persecution. Thailand’s repression is full of Orwellian ironies, such as a book titled Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy being strictly banned in the country, while the Human Rights Watch page on Thailand painting it as an ongoing ‘human rights crisis’ is something that is inaccessible within its borders. Compounding this broad attack on freedom of expression have been tactics to instil fear in individual citizens, with hundreds of journalists, students, and dissenters being detained.

This is to say nothing of the vulnerable position of those in the sex industry in Thailand, with concerns about trafficking and child prostitution being widespread. Or its three million migrant workers, many of whom have no protection under labour laws and are subject to such abuse and exploitation that they have been likened to slaves. The government has also been criticised for targeting separatist ethnic Malay Muslims in the south of Thailand, with whom conflicts have raged quietly for years. In a divided country that denies so many of its citizens basic rights, we must ensure we arrive aware of our privilege and behave accordingly.

Sharing a border with Thailand, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is becoming increasingly popular with backpackers travelling around Southeast Asia, complementing its fast-growing economy. However, the idea of travelling to Myanmar may cause discomfort to anyone aware of the ethnic cleansing perpetuated by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya people, the majority of whom reside in the Rakhine state on the western coast of the country. The genocide follows Myanmar’s military government’s pattern of enacting atrocities against ethnic minority groups, such as systemic rapes against the Shan people and the ongoing brutal violence against the displaced people of Kachin State.

The Rohingya, with a population of over one million, were described by the U.N. in 2013 as the most persecuted group in the world. They have been stripped of all rights, including citizenship, by their country — the state claims they are illegal Bengali immigrants. Forced into refugee camps and condemned to extreme poverty, the treatment of the Rohingya people was an outrage that escalated into a crisis of violence in 2016 when the Myanmar government sent the military as part of a counterinsurgency operation in which thousands of civilians were raped, tortured, and killed. Between 2012 and 2017 over 168,000 Rohingya attempted fleeing Myanmar on dangerous journeys that often result in deaths as well as further violence in the countries they arrive in.

David is a traveller from the US who visited Myanmar earlier this year. He said that while he wasn’t worried about his safety in Myanmar he tried, like many other tourists, to avoid the ubiquitous government fees — even taking a twenty-four hour bus instead of a one-hour flight, as the airline is owned by the government. David says this was something the local people were happy to assist him with ‘by telling me about secret, unguarded entrances to attractions, hiding me in their vehicles as we drove past checkpoints where foreigners were made to pay “zone fees”, and explaining cases of government abuse’. Of those who helped him, ‘some were descended from the hill tribes (especially in Shan state) and have a long history of abuse at the hands of the military’ themselves.

Avoiding the fees set up by corrupt governments when we can, and instead trying to ensure our money goes to local people, is one way of travelling more ethically than the countries we go to would have us do. But the question then becomes whether money generated by tourism can be helpful to the people of the country who most need it. I tend to agree with David, who says that from his experience in Myanmar ‘money is helping some people, but usually not the poorest’.

Ultimately, Western privilege allows us to travel within an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ framework concerning the violence perpetrated by foreign states. However, the reality is that developing countries such as Myanmar do rely on tourism as one method of propelling their economies and alleviating poverty. Simultaneously, boycotting these countries won’t dissuade their governments from carrying out human rights abuses. But we have a responsibility to be informed about the countries we visit, and act ethically when we do — and we must use our voices and privilege to speak up when we can.

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