Asia

Why Taking Pictures Is Illegal In Myanmar

By  | 
Yangon, Myanmar view of Shwedagon Pagoda at dusk

Image: Shutterstock/Sean Pavone

Why Taking Pictures Is Illegal In Myanmar

Countries traditionally closed to visitors are starting to open up their borders and relax censorship laws that have kept foreign tourists away for centuries. Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is one such country. After years of authoritarian rule, the country begin transitioning to a democratic state in 2010. Land, buildings and commercial business opportunities have opened to foreigners, which has paved the way for modern conveniences like wireless internet and internationally-linked ATMs.

History Of Myanmar

In 1898, a British author is said to have written of Myanmar, “it’s unlike any other land you know about,” which still rings true more than a hundred years later. Home to hundreds of pagodas and temples, the country is also known for the thousands of monks who care for religious buildings. A land rich with natural resources, one can explore the mountains, forests and sea of Myanmar’s rural villages free from large hordes of tourists. Even more wonderful are the welcoming villagers who are known for their kind, inquisitive nature and fondness for inviting foreigners to a cup of tea. With more than one hundred ethnic groups making up this tiny nation, there’s plenty to see and do.

Despite the development of Myanmar and openness to tourists, foreigners may be surprised to learn of a conservative law, which states that it is illegal in Myanmar for foreigners to take pictures of buildings and officials. Indeed, the official US Government travel website, travel.state.gov, warns tourists of taking pictures of Burmese government buildings, officials and anything that can be perceived as a government interest. For this reason, photography of seemingly innocent structures like bridges and airfields are also discouraged. If the Burmese authorities feel photography is inappropriate, one could be arrested or questioned.

Take Photos With Caution

In a country where all foreigners and many nationals are under constant surveillance, taking photos of government officials and government buildings is considered a nuisance at best and possible threat at worst. All foreigners are placed under surveillance in Burma, and hotels are required to report information about tourists by the government. Meetings with Burmese citizens and even emails and internet usage may be monitored by the Burmese government. If there is any doubt, a New Zealand business owner was jailed and eventually sentenced in December 2014 for posting a picture of Buddha in headphones on Facebook.

As a new democracy, even a short visit to Myanmar requires caution and care. All travelers need a visa to visit the country, regardless of their length of stay. Military checkpoints, where visitors are required to show their passport and visa, are also common outside of entry and exit points. Just last year, the US issued a travel advisory warning tourists to be careful during local elections. In fact, some regions of the country are still blocked off and restricted for US Diplomats, but the local Ministry of Hotels and Tourism maintains a list of places that can be visited by tourists.

When visiting any country, being an informed tourist is essential and means familiarizing oneself with and respecting local laws. Just one brush with the local law caused by a cultural misunderstanding can be a devastating blow to international relations.