What makes Burma a unique country to travel to?
Burma (Myanmar) is a developing agrarian country emerging from decades of rule by an authoritarian military regime. Elections in November 2010 led to a peaceful transition to a civilian government headed by President Thein Sein. Under President Thein Sein, the Government of Burma has initiated a series of political and economic reforms which have resulted in a substantial opening of the long-isolated country. These reforms have included the release of many political prisoners, preliminary peace agreements with some armed ethnic groups, greater freedom of the press, and parliamentary by-elections in 2012 in which pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her opposition party won a landslide victory and seats in parliament.
After a long period of isolation, Burma has started to encourage tourism. As a foreigner, you can expect to pay more than locals do for accommodations, domestic airfares, and entry to tourist sites. Tourist facilities in Rangoon, Bagan, Ngapali Beach, Inle Lake, and Mandalay are superior to tourist facilities in other parts of the country, where they are limited or nonexistent.
Crime rates in Burma, especially toward foreigners, are lower than those of many other countries in the region. Nevertheless, the crime rate has been increasing. Violent crime against foreigners is rare.
Don’t buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are the bootlegs illegal in the United States, but if you purchase them, you may also be breaking local law.
While you are traveling in Burma, you are subject to its laws, even if you are a U.S. citizen. Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different than our own. It is illegal to take pictures of Burmese officials and of certain buildings, such as military installations and government buildings. There are also some things that might be legal in Burma, but still illegal in the United States. You can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods. Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime prosecutable in the United States.
While in Burma, you should carry your U.S. passport or a photocopy of passport data and visa pages at all times so that if you are questioned by Burmese officials, you will have proof of your U.S. citizenship readily available. It is important to remember, however, that your U.S. passport won’t help you avoid arrest or prosecution for violating local laws.
Some foreigners have been denied even minimal rights in criminal proceedings in Burma, especially when suspected of engaging in political activity of any type. This includes, but is not limited to, denial of access to an attorney, denial of access to court records, and denial of family and consular visits. Although the current civilian government has repealed some of the laws that prohibited people from exercising many of the rights that U.S. citizens enjoy in the United States – including the freedoms of assembly and speech – there are still many laws on the books that criminalize things that are not illegal in the United States. For example, Burmese law forbids Burmese citizens from possessing dual nationality.
Under the Burmese Motor Vehicle Act of 1964, driving while intoxicated is punishable by either six months in jail, or a 500 kyat (equivalent to USD 50 cents) fine, or both.
Based on the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and customary international law, if you are arrested in Burma, you have the option to request that the police, prison officials, or other authorities alert the U.S. Embassy of your arrest, and to have communications from you forwarded to the U.S. Embassy.
Burma is a nation of many races - some 135 ethnic groups, with their own languages and dialects, make up its population of nearly 45 million. It is impossible to mention more than a few of the races, for Burma is an anthropologists' paradise. The Burmese people call their own language Bamar or Myanmar and it is the main language spoken throughout the country. About 70 per cent of the people of Burma speak one or other of the Burma Group of languages while the percentage of those speaking Burmese is estimated at ninety. Despite the diversity and geographic separation the national groups share with each other a wide variety of social customs and culture. The Burmese language vocabulary contains a large number of Pali and Sanskrit words. The earliest Burmese writing was the Myazedi Stone Inscription. which is a four-sided stone inscription constructed in 1113 A.D. during the Pagan Period. The inscription is written in Myanmar, Pyu, Mon and Pali and was discovered in 1887.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
We highly recommend that you share your travel plans with your doctor so that you can best prepare for the endemic health-related challenges that confront travelers in Burma. Most medical facilities in Burma are inadequate for even routine medical care. There are very few medical personnel in Burma who are trained to U.S. standards. You should also know that, in an emergency, you would likely need to be medically evacuated to a hospital outside Burma. Medical evacuation from Burma is expensive and is transacted in cash. We strongly urge all travelers to secure medical evacuation insurance before coming to Burma. Most pharmaceuticals on sale in Burma have been smuggled into the country, and many are counterfeit or adulterated. Travelers should consider Burmese pharmaceuticals generally unsafe to use and should accordingly bring adequate supplies of their medications for the duration of their stay in Burma. All travelers are advised to bring a complete and detailed list of regularly used medicine, and dosages, in case of an emergency. HIV/AIDS is widespread among high-risk populations, such as prostitutes and illegal drug users. Malaria, dengue fever, tuberculosis, hepatitis, and other infectious diseases are endemic in many parts of the country.
In early 2006 throughout 2007, and again in early 2010, brief avian influenza outbreaks resulted in the death of domestic poultry and some wild birds. In December 2007, the World Health Organization and Burmese Ministry of Health confirmed Burma’s first case of human infection with the H5N1 avian influenza virus. If you travel to Burma and other South Asian countries affected by avian influenza, we caution you to avoid poultry farms, contact with animals in live food markets, and any other surfaces that appear to be contaminated with feces from poultry or other animals. There were no reported human cases on H5N1 in Burma during the 2010 outbreaks.
Safety and Security
Over a period of years, Burma has experienced sporadic bombing attacks, primarily targeting government buildings and vehicles. In January 2013, improvised explosive devices (IED) were used in three attacks in Kachin State. In June 2011, bombings targeted a variety of local facilities, including government offices, public restrooms, a public phone booth, markets, and in one instance a train traveling from Mandalay to Rangoon. In April 2010, a series of explosions among a crowd of revelers at a Water Festival celebration in Rangoon killed at least ten people and wounded as many as 170. There is no indication that these attacks targeted U.S. citizens or U.S. interests.
Conflicts between the government and various ethnic minority groups continue in a number of border regions in Burma, and anti-personnel landmines in some border areas pose an additional danger. Occasional fighting between government forces and various rebel groups has occurred in Chin State and Sagaing Division near India and along Burma's Kachin, Shan, Mon, Kayah, and Karen State’s borders with China and Thailand. From time to time, the governments of Burma and Thailand have closed the border between the two nations on short notice. Recent military actions in Kachin State by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese Army have endangered the lives of civilians.
Sectarian violence in Rakhine State in June and October 2012 reportedly left many people dead and displaced thousands of others. The violence also resulted in demonstrations in Rangoon and elsewhere.
In light of these incidents, you should exercise caution in public places at all times. Be alert to your surroundings and the presence of unattended packages or bags or suspicious objects/activity in public areas. Furthermore, avoid crowded public places, such as large public gatherings, demonstrations, and any areas cordoned off by security forces; problems can develop quickly. Even demonstrations that are meant to be peaceful can become violent and unpredictable. While in Burma, you should closely follow media reports and public information about the security situation in Burma. Given the Government of Burma's restrictions on travel by U.S. diplomats, U.S. Government assistance to U.S. citizens affected by incidents in remote areas of Burma may be difficult.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in a foreign country, you may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Burma is provided for your general reference only, and may not be accurate in a particular location or circumstance.
Rangoon's main roads are generally in poor condition. Traffic in the capital has increased rapidly, resulting in traffic congestion during morning and early evening rush hours. Some roads are in serious disrepair. Slow-moving vehicles, bicycles, animals, and heavy pedestrian traffic create numerous hazards for drivers on Rangoon's streets. If you drive in Burma, you must remain extremely alert to avoid hitting pedestrians.
Most roads outside of Rangoon consist of one to two lanes and are potholed, often unpaved, and unlit at night. Many of the truck drivers traveling from China to Rangoon are believed to drive under the influence of methamphetamines and other stimulants. Drunken and/or drugged drivers are also common on the roads during the four-day Buddhist water festival in mid-April. Driving at night is particularly dangerous. Few streets are adequately lit. Most Burmese drivers do not turn on their headlights until the sky is completely dark; many do not use headlights at all. Many bicyclists use no lights or reflectors.
Vehicular traffic moves on the right side, as in the United States; however, a majority of vehicles have the steering wheel positioned on the right. The “right of way” concept is generally respected, but military convoys and motorcades always have precedence. Most vehicle accidents are settled between the parties on site, with the party at fault paying the damages. In the event of an accident with a pedestrian, the driver is always considered to be at fault and subject to fines or arrest, regardless of the circumstances. Accidents that require an investigation are concluded quickly and rarely result in criminal prosecution. There is no roadside assistance, and ambulances are not available. Vehicles generally do not have seat belts. Child car seats are also not available.