Local Authorities Still Wary of Foreign Visitors

Two giant Buddhist statues from the Win Sein Taw Ya Monastery in Mon State’s Mudon Township—an area that is still very much off the beaten track for visitors to Burma. (Lawi Weng / The Irrawaddy)

MUDON TOWNSHIP, Mon State ― For decades foreign visitors’ movements have been restricted and monitored in Burma, especially in ethnic majority areas abutting the country’s borders.

But with the recent opening up of the country to investment and tourism, all that is supposed to be changing.

So I was surprised last week when, after taking an American tourist to see my village in Mon State, near the border with Thailand, my family came under scrutiny by the local authorities.

I wanted to show the American visitor what life was like in Mon State, where access has been restricted to outsiders for many years under military rule.

First, the chief of Mudon Township, where I am from, told the village to alert him in future if foreign visitors come to the area. According to the village chief, Nai Pom, the police must be told if foreigners intend to visit.

The police did not come and ask questions at my house, where the foreign visitor stayed. But the chief and some of his men turned up instead. My father, Nai Nyo, told them that there should be no problem, because of the political changes happening in the country.

“I told [Nai Pom] that the foreigner visited Burma with official permission,” my father said. “He was not here illegally.”

The American who visited my village, Raynolds, was perplexed by the authorities’ actions.

“I could not understand why they still wanted to restrict tourism, even though local people are happy to see me,” said Raynolds, who visited my village after recently arriving in Burma.

Raynolds plans to teach at an orphanage in Rangoon for two months, as he feels it is important for people to help improve education in Burma.

Tourists are also still barred from staying at guesthouses in Moulmein, Mon State’s capital.

After I stayed with a foreign friend at a guesthouse in Moulmein, my ID card and his passport were confiscated. If it was not for the owner of the guesthouse, who intervened, I do not know what the police would have done.

The owner said the police told him they must be informed if foreigners stay there.

The authorities in Moulmein are missing a trick, as by letting guesthouses take foreigners young people will be able to learn English, and tourism will bring in much-needed money to the area.

Mi Ja Rai Non, an ethnic Mon and a rights activist from the Women and Child Rights Project, said: “If the authorities let tourists stay at guesthouses here we can get some foreign volunteers who teach English to come. This is a good opportunity for youth who want to study.”

These instances are just a few examples of how the authorities are treating visitors and people who cater to tourists in Burma’s peripheral regions.

At the entrance to every township in ethnic areas, the government has erected signs that read “Welcome Foreigners.”

But local authorities are very much clinging to a past where foreign visitors were regarded with suspicion and closely monitored. This will have to change if reforms undertaken since President Thein Sein took office in 2011 are to be taken seriously by visitors to our country.

13 Responses to Local Authorities Still Wary of Foreign Visitors

  1. Because the local authorities are still living in the past and they have no broaden knowledge of changes. They know only 40 years of ruling Junta’s stupid rules. The need to be educated seriously how to deal with foreign visitors. More and more tourists will visit our country.

  2. Local authorities in Burma are still practicing their old laws. Their mentality has not changed a bit and still following previous regime style rules. All visitors, regardless of locals or foreigners are still needed to report to the local authority. Those laws must be amended in democracy. These local authorities are still living in nineteen century of dictator’s era. Why the Burmese government still have those local authorities in their payroll? Most of them were working as a watch dog or spy of the previous regimes that waste of resource, productivity and money. the Burmese government should re-educate those local authorities and reassign them for useful of their own communities. The government should rather invest their money in education, medical and infrastructure instead.

  3. Old habits die hard. Local authorities just want to play God and should be reminded of backfires. Their actions are the setbacks to the democratization and should be censured.

  4. President Thein Sein , Minister Khin Yi and authorised personnels must change the law ASAP So tourists can visit border areas and restricted areas freely and no trouble from local authorities. As Myanmar becomes a democratic country one should be able to move around freely and without fear. Because peace deals have been done in most of the ethnic border areas ,Thein Sein Government should not have problems with tourists visiting border areas.
    Also there should be no reporting of guests to local authorities in these time of Reforming Democracy in Myanmar

  5. Their own ghosts are haunting them. What a shame! They lack confidence. They better resign and let the new generation to lead.

  6. Hope the reformist Thein Sein Government will relax restrictions on tourists and allowed to move freely within the country .Peace deals have been done in border areas so not to worry about safety for tourists. Also reporting overnight staying guests to local authorities should be exempted.,if the country changed to democracy.

  7. Good article and it raises an issue that needs to be addressed regarding tourism:

    Burma is quickly becoming a go-to destination for all sorts of tourists, those in tour groups as well as independent backpackers.

    As big a draw as the “Big Four” (Rangoon, Mandalay, Inle, Bagan, and arguably, to make it five, Golden Rock Pagoda) are, many tourists will be wanting to visit more rural areas so as to see the local life. Therefore, it is imperative that local authorities recognize this change and adapt. Tourists are not here to document and exploit, but they do want to gain a better understanding of the country by visiting the rural areas and meeting the local people. I assume that there will be many more people like Raynolds who will be traveling in the country and also volunteering, and this is a commendable endeavor that shouldn’t be discouraged by unnecessary run-ins with local authorities.

    Perhaps the government should become more active in tourism and make sure that foreigners are able to see beautiful Burma without having to worry about local authorities who haven’t adjusted to the changes. Yes, some areas are still barred from tourists and it is the responsibility of the tourist to respect this, but I have a suspicion that most tourists do so and want to travel in Burma responsibly. The increase in foreign visitors will only help Burma and it is great for the local people to see and interact with foreigners who are learning about Burma and also coming here with good intentions.

  8. don’t think all foreigner is good like you think.

  9. While all this is reasonable comment, I think you need to go with the flow at the moment. Check if you need a permit (they are usually easy enough to get) to visit an area, they are often only necessary if you want to stay, but if you turn up without one it puts a guesthouse owner under undue stress.

    Staying with locals is another matter. Ironically this is much easier in really out of the way places, where they never see foreigners. When we stay with friends in Yangon they always notify the district head. It’s never a problem.

    The restrictions are gradually easing and I’m sure in a couple of years we will all as visitors be much freer, in the meantime check the rules and chill a bit.

  10. (Mi Ja Rai Non, an ethnic Mon and a rights activist from the Women and Child Rights Project, said: “If the authorities let tourists stay at guesthouses here we can get some foreign volunteers who teach English to come. This is a good opportunity for youth who want to study.” )

    Related to this quote. Irrawaddy did not interviewed me ( Mi Jarai Non) to write new article. You are not respected the ethics of journalism.

  11. to the guy who wants to go the border:
    these areas are contamined with mines. stay away.
    (bago region lots of mines too btw).
    many border regios have no infrastructure. too many westerners dont seem to understand.
    many border areas are lawless. u get robbed dont expect help. u get into trouble u cant call your mommy or the tourist police.
    i understand people feel attracted to adventure but myanmar border areas are not some backpackers spot.
    been there in 80s and early 90s when the junta wasnt controlling these areas. in and out via thailand.

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