On Burma and How We Can Help

I’m sure you all have heard, especially if you’re making it to this blog, of the tragedy in Burma from Cyclone Nargis. As bad as Hurricane Katrina was, Nargis has already killed ten times as many people, and there are many many more unaccounted for. There are stories of entire towns, houses, people and all, being literally washed off the map. Those left in its wake face even more hardship, now having to fend off disease, find food and clean water, and start putting their lives back together.

I think what strikes me most about this tragedy is how “unavoidable” it was. There are some reports that the people were not notified well enough, but first of all, there is no clear way to contact everyone as its not like there is a TV or radio in every house. Even so, I’m sure people are quite skeptical of the state run media by now, not to mention people often don’t abide by storm warnings, as we so often see in this country. The truth is that the only thing that would have really saved lives is better infrastructure, and that does not come without a stronger and more developed economy. That path was carved 30-40 years ago. So say what you will about the regime there (and we have), but there was not much they could have done to prevent this tragedy.

What they can do, however, is address the aftermath with conviction and honesty. Their people need all the aid they can get and there are people around the world willing to give it to them. This is where their actions most offend me. So far, they are making things rather difficult because of bureaucracy. The only place to get a visa into the country is through the office in Yangon, which, as you may imagine, is not very functional at the moment. I imagine this will find an expedient resolution very soon, and there are already a number of amazing organizations already in the country doing their best to provide necessities to the people of Burma. The Network for Good has a great post about the best ways to start helping the people put their lives back together. Please do what you can to help the Burmese people get back on their feet so they can go get their democratic leaders (in 2011 … if it’s not ignored this time).

The Situation in Burma/Myanmar

Since Jeff and I first decided to take this round the world trip–it’s been years in the making now…hurry up with the PhD already–we’ve been makings lists of places we want to go. We get a zillion travel magazines and we’ve read through books like “1001 Places to See Before You Die” and “Lonely Planet’s A Year of Adventure,” searching for locations that seem interesting to us. So far, we haven’t settled on anything certain, but we have a pretty good idea.

One of the places on our list was Burma, although it had a faint little question mark next to it. It’s a place we’d both like to discover but that we had uncertainties about. As a country led by an oppressive and illegal regime, we wondered what was the right thing to do. For political reasons, should we boycott this country, refusing to contribute money to a corrupt and cruel government? Or should we go in spite of the government, to meet the people, to better understand the situation, to try to put money into the hands of people who need it? We hadn’t really formulated an answer.

Recent events have made it such that the decision is not so difficult. Clearly Burma is a troubled and dangerous place–at the moment for travelers, probably always for citizens. And even if it calms down, I am not sure we’d go. I think before, when violence wasn’t so blatant, it was somewhat easier to justify a trip there. Now, with my political sensibilities more strongly awakened, it seems that it would be wrong to go against the wishes of democratically-elected leader Aung San Suu Ky, under house arrest since 1990, who asked that people boycott the country until the military regime is deposed and civil liberties are restored. I hope that happens soon, that these protests are not futile, that democracy is indeed on the brink of a comeback. And I hope that not just for my own petty interests, but for the welfare of a people.

What do you think? How much should issues such as these play in to decisions about travel? I’m not exactly sure if I can draw a line in the sand, establish a base criteria. I’m not going to go to somewhere that is clearly dangerous—Iraq for example. But I don’t want to not go somewhere because of sensationalized danger that is in fact, not truly there. A fair amount of people thought we were crazy to go to Egypt in 2004, but if I hadn’t had gone, I would have missed one of the most amazing and friendly places I have ever been. And what about when a place might not exactly be dangerous but is very strongly anti-American? Although I hear wonderful things about Iran, I’m not planning to go there. However, I think we will go to Venezuela, which is led by a man nearly (or just) as crazy and anti-American as Ahmadinejad. I can’t articulate my reasoning, and I can’t say that it won’t change. Often making decisions about travel has to do a lot more with your gut than your head. It’s a rapidly changing world, and sometimes even a line in the sand is a little too permanent.