World News

Jack Dorsey, Posting About Myanmar on Twitter, Is Accused of Being Tone Deaf

Posted December 10, 2018 11:30 a.m. EST

HONG KONG — Twitter’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey, fresh off a silent-meditation retreat in Myanmar, was so smitten with his visit that he posted a series of glowing tweets about the country and its people, urging others to travel there.

But his posts Sunday were called out by many on Twitter for not mentioning the plight of the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority group that has faced a ruthless campaign of violence and persecution at the hands of Myanmar’s military that caused hundreds of thousands to flee.

Dorsey now faces a backlash from critics who described his travel missives — which included a description of how he used his Apple Watch in airplane mode to track his heart rate during meditation and rest — as politically tone deaf.

“Myanmar is an absolutely beautiful country. The people are full of joy and the food is amazing,” one tweet said. “I visited the cities of Yangon, Mandalay, and Bagan. We visited and meditated at many monasteries around the country.”

“Is this satire?” one person asked on Twitter. “Please be satire.”

The criticism of Dorsey echoes a debate that once swirled among Western travelers during the years Myanmar was ruled by a repressive military junta — a debate that mostly subsided after 2012 elections brought the country’s Nobel Prize-winning dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, and her party into office for the first time.

But today’s debate over the ethics of visiting Myanmar is different. First, Suu Kyi, who while a political prisoner once asked foreign tourists to boycott her country, is now the civilian leader of a government whose ruthless military campaign against the Rohingya has broad popular support from Myanmar’s ethnic Bamar Buddhist majority.

Before 2012, it could still be argued “that to ignore the boycott by visiting Myanmar, you were lending important financial support to ordinary people who were not involved in the junta and were largely innocent of any moral wrongdoing,” said Stuart McDonald, a co-founder of Travelfish, a travel website covering Southeast Asia.

“Today, that doesn’t really hold,” he said, “as the actions against specifically the Rohingya, but also the Muslim minority population in general, enjoy a degree of popular support within the general population.”

More than 720,000 Rohingya fled slaughter, rape and village burnings last year in western Myanmar, where many of their families had lived for generations. One result is the transformation of Suu Kyi, the country’s civilian leader, from democracy icon to an enabler of what the United Nations calls ethnic cleaning and a foe of the free press.

Myanmar has denied that its military committed atrocities against the Rohingya, saying it was merely responding to attacks by Rohingya militants. But U.N. experts said in August, echoing reporting by human rights groups, that top Myanmar generals should face trial in an international court for genocide against the Rohingya and crimes against humanity targeting other ethnic minorities.

In addition to physical violence, Myanmar military personnel turned Facebook into a tool for ethnic violence to target the Rohingya, according to former officials and other experts. Facebook acknowledged last month that it had failed to prevent its platform from being used to “foment division and incite offline violence” in Myanmar.

How all of that will ultimately affect Myanmar’s tourism industry — which has generally boomed since 2012 — is unclear.

But year-on-year visitor arrivals of American and Canadian travelers in Myanmar were down nearly 15 percent through September, and more than 26 percent for visitors from Western Europe, according to government figures. People working in Myanmar’s travel industry said in interviews Monday that they attributed the slump to concerns about the military’s treatment of the Rohingya.

But tourist arrivals were up nearly 34 percent for Chinese travelers in the same period, and more than 10 percent for those from Asia as a whole, government figures show. Several in the tourism industry said that an overall rise in the number of Asian visitors made them optimistic about future prospects.

“If 3 million Westerners don’t want to come, then 3 million easterners will come,” said Win Zaw Oo, chairman of the Mandalay Tourist Guide Society. “Our country will not be ruined as Westerners want it to be. We can manage.”

Renaud Egreteau, author of “Caretaking Democratization: The Military and Political Change in Myanmar,” said he doubted that a new era of tourism boycotts could force Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy, to show more empathy toward ethnic and religious minorities generally, or Rohingya in particular.

Egreteau said one reason was that boycotting specific tourist attractions or practicing ethical tourism — in which tourists choose to minimize their negative impacts on local culture, politics or the environment — had become more popular than “broadly shunning holidays to the country.”

Vicky Bowman, director of the Myanmar Center for Responsible Business, said that much effort had been made recently to develop “sustainable, culture-focused and community-based tourism offerings” in the country, and that such initiatives would fold if affluent Westerners chose not to visit.

After posting the tweets about his trip, Dorsey said he would be happy to answer questions about his experience in Myanmar, but as of late Sunday in California, he had not responded to criticism of his tweets.

Kate Hayes, the policy communications manager for Twitter in the Asia-Pacific region, declined to comment.