Local Authorities Still Wary of Foreign Visitors

By Lawi Weng 11 March 2013

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.