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Responsible travel in a broken nation

  • 10 April 2015

My first visit to Myanmar was made by foot: a short walk across the Friendship Bridge which spans the Moei River and links the pariah state with the Thai border town of Mae Sot.

My passport was examined at the immigration checkpoint on the Thai side of the bridge; ten minutes later, upon arrival in this land which for decades had concealed itself from the world, I purchased a Myanmar visa for US$10, had my passport stamped, and was commanded by the stern-faced, uniformed immigration official lazing on a chair inside the checkpoint to leave it in his possession as I explored the town of Myawaddy.

Feeling both uneasy and conspicuous – I saw only one other westerner there – I failed to make a deep incursion into this riverside town. I walked the streets closest to the bridge, browsed the shops and tried to converse with locals, but the language barrier and the looks of surprise my presence provoked made meaningful engagement impossible.

I was in Mae Sot to interview Burmese refugees and migrants who were about to graduate from an Australian Catholic University liberal arts program. Back on the other side of the border, en route to my guest house, the mini bus I was travelling in was stopped by armed Thai police, who examined the identity documents of the other passengers, all of them Thais and Burmese. The tension radiated by those students I had interviewed, by the people on this bus and by the broader population of Mae Sot – a city that contained several Burmese-filled refugee camps – was palpable.

My second visit to Myanmar happened just days later, when I took a boat from the southern Thai town of Ranong across a strip of Andaman Sea to the most southerly city in Myanmar, Kawthoung. Our small party was hosted for the day by a Burmese Catholic priest; he drove us in his rattletrap Jeep to the town's lookout, showed us around a Catholic primary school and took us to the home of a local family for lunch. All the while, I felt that we were being watched, followed. I vividly recall the motorbike and its two occupants that had crested the lookout close behind us, and which had appeared again in our wake as we drove towards the harbour, the driver expelling a draught of betel-stained spittle as he kept us locked in his gaze.   

A year