Travellers should keep visiting Myanmar (Burma) despite the conflict taking place in the north of the country, which has been described by the UN as having the trademarks of ethnic cleansing.
This is the view of one tour operator that says trips to the south-east Asian country are both safe and morally sound.
What is happening in Myanmar?
The Burmese military has launched an offensive against Rohingya “extremists” in Rakhine state, with many of the international community concerned Muslim civilians are being targeted in the Buddhist-majority country.
Violence has engulfed the Bangladeshi border region in recent weeks, with reports emerging of Rohingya villages being razed to the ground and civilians being cut down as they attempt to flee.
The United Nations has branded the offensive a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
Some Rohingya, a minority in Myanmar, have accused the army of state-sanctioned massacres and rape, though the army says it merely responding to attacks from “extremists”.
Has the Foreign Office issued advice?
Last week the Foreign Office (FCO) said there was a “significant risk of intercommunal violence in Rakhine”, to which it advises against all but essential travel – as it has for a number of years.
“This is due to continued tension following serious civil unrest in 2012 and a continued risk of armed conflict and the threat of landmines in the northern areas,” it said, citing outbreaks of violence every year since.
“In late August and early September 2016, security operations in northern Rakhine have involved the clearance of villages and mass displacement of populations,” it added.
Do tourists visit Rakhine – and should I cancel my trip to Myanmar?
Few visit the western region, many to see the ancient abandoned city of Mrauk U, the capital of the powerful Mrauk U kingdom from 1430 to 1785.
“None of the areas on our itineraries are in any way impacted by the current problems,” said Liddy Pleasants, managing director of Stubborn Mule Travel. “Ngapali Beach is in Rakhine State but in the far south and around 500km away from where the violence is occurring.
“Some clients are concerned about visiting Burma from a moral point of view during the current troubles. This is a more difficult personal decision. Our own view is that avoiding travel to Burma does not achieve anything and can, in fact, be to the detriment of the country as a whole.
“Large parts of the country now rely on tourism to a very great degree. In the past, much of the tourist infrastructure was owned by the government and there was a compelling argument that a tourist embargo would help avoid giving money to the government and therefore help bring about change.
“However, this is no longer the case; the vast majority of hotels and restaurants are now privately owned, and employ local people. Guides are self-employed or work for privately owned tourist enterprises. Drivers again mostly work for privately owned tourist enterprises. Taxi drivers, porters, waiters, souvenir sellers, ticket vendors, hawkers, craftsmen and many more derive all of their income from tourists and would find their livelihood very adversely affected if the tourists stop coming. It is our opinion that avoiding travel to Burma will have little impact on the government and the military but a more profound impact on local people.”
Where in the country is most popular with tourists?
Bagan is one of the most popular draws, a vast temple site to rival Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat.
“The setting is sublime,” says regular Telegraph Travel contributor Tim Jepson, “a verdant 26 square-mile plain, part-covered in stands of palm and tamarind caught in a bend of the lazy-flowing Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) river and framed by the hazy silver-grey of distant mountains.
“Rising from the plain’s canopy of green are temples, dozens of them, hundreds of them, beautiful, other-worldly silhouettes that were built by the kings of Bagan between 1057 and 1287, when their kingdom was swept away by earthquakes and Kublai Khan and his invading Mongols.”
Inle Lake and the beast resort of Ngapali are popular, too, as well as cruises on the Irrawaddy river.
Does the Foreign Office advise against travel to anywhere else in the country?
In addition to Rakhine State, the FCO also advises against all but essential travel to Shan State and Kachin State, further to the north.
The FCO says: “The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all but essential travel to Rakhine State except the southern townships (administrative areas similar to a borough or county) of Kyaukpyu, Ramree, Munaung, Toungup, Thandwe (including the tourist resort of Ngapali) and Gwa.
“The FCO advise against all but essential travel to Shan State (North), except Lashio town (which includes the airport), Kyaukme town, Hsipaw town, and the train line from Mandalay to Lashio.
“The FCO advise against all but essential travel to Kachin State (except the towns of Myitkyina, Bhamo and Putao) due to continued risk of armed conflict.”
It adds: “The situation in ethnic states where armed groups operate is volatile. There is ongoing conflict in the north of Shan State, and in Kachin State and there remains the possibility of violent clashes in other ethnic states.”
It says most visits are trouble-free.
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