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Tea Leaves

Myanmar highlights divide between commerce and politics

The fairy tale is over but tourism boycott would be unhelpful and wrong

Tourists photograph the sunset from the Shwesandaw Pagoda in Bagan, Myanmar.   © LightRocket/Getty Images

Ethnic cleansing. Jailed reporters. International sanctions. Travel boycotts. Headlines like these haunted me as I first journeyed to Myanmar from Europe in July 2008.

For much of the last 10 years I've called this country home, witnessing one of the most remarkable periods of political and societal change in modern history.

I watched the joy on people's faces as their relatives were freed after years behind bars. I joined the hustle at the news stands as censorship was lifted, and applauded the bustling new businesses that appeared as international sanctions were torn down.

I danced in the streets on Nov. 8, 2015, wide-eyed in wonder at the country's first credible election in more than 50 years. And I saw those same streets fill with curious tourists, itching to roam a country so long closed to mainstream tourism.

But over the last 12 months the tide of good news has turned on its head. Myanmar's fairy tale march toward a peaceful, democratic, multiethnic utopia stumbled and then fell flat. Week after week, news bulletins were filled with the desperate plight of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing an orchestrated campaign of violence in Rakhine State.

Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi -- the government's de facto leader -- shocked the world with her refusal to condemn the perpetrators or the jailing of local journalists who sought to expose their actions. Calls for a drastic response ring out around the world, grim headlines fill the air, and tourist boycotts are back on the agenda. It feels as though the last 10 years never happened.

What about the fairy tale we were promised? Well, like most fairy tales, Myanmar's turned out to be nonsense. Ethnic conflict, oppressive government and political crises are the norm, not the exception in the story of modern Myanmar. What we see today is just the latest spike in a series of deeply rooted and interconnected problems afflicting the country.

Two burning questions face today's potential tourists -- is it safe to go, and is it right?

The answer to the first question is a resounding yes. In 10 years of traveling to every corner of Myanmar, I have never faced so much as a rude remark. There will always be some places off-limits to foreigners, but the country's most famous sights -- the ancient temples of Bagan, the former royal city of Mandalay, the floating gardens of Inle Lake -- remain safe and accessible.

The second question is more difficult to answer. Is it ethically correct to travel to Myanmar? My answer, for now, is yes. The grim reality is that a travel boycott would do little to hold to account those responsible for the treatment of the Rohingya. More important, it would do nothing to help the Rohingya themselves. In fact it would damage guest houses, shops and restaurants across Myanmar owned by families that have invested everything they have in the tourist boom.

On journeys across the country this year I have seen reality biting -- children kept out of school, urgent medical treatments delayed, debt-collectors descending. These people had nothing to do with the events in Rakhine, and now face losing it all as tourist numbers slump.

But I fear the most valuable things Myanmar stands to lose are the intangible changes I have seen -- a growing confidence among its people in speaking to foreigners, and a burning hunger to learn from the outside world.

I have watched Myanmar shake off the dust of isolation and embrace an explosion of art, literature, thought and music fired by a period of unprecedented cultural exchange with visitors from abroad. It was a hard-won opportunity that for decades the people of Myanmar were denied, and it is one that risks disappearing as quickly as it arrived.

The people of Myanmar are expressing themselves in unlikely ways. Informed, responsible and curious tourists can be the audience that now, more than ever, they so badly need.

Whether it is former political prisoners exploring the trauma of dictatorship through modern art, rappers and punk rockers preaching religious tolerance, or brave journalists battling for press freedom, the people of Myanmar are refusing to stay silent.

And I believe we owe it to the long-suffering people of this country to keep listening. It certainly will not be the fairy tale we were all hoping for, but I guarantee, it will be a story worth hearing.

Alex Bescoby is a Myanmar-based film maker and historian

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