Saturday, June 24, 2017
The Myanmar Times
The Myanmar Times

Passport problems

Khin Myat can’t contain her excitement.

The aspiring travel writer seems to have limitless ambition when listing the countries she hopes to visit.

“I want to go everywhere,” she recently told The Myanmar Times.

Click image to expandClick image to expand

There’s only one problem – as a Myanmar citizen, Ma Khin Myat holds one of the most restricting passports on the planet.

Myanmar passport-holders can travel to just 42 out of a possible 218 countries without applying for a visa. This ranks 10th-last globally, tied with North Korea and conflict-stricken Burundi.

While some visas are relatively simple to apply for, many involve an arduous process that can require invitation letters, proof of assets, certificates of employment and more.

It’s a fact that Ma Khin Myat is all too familiar with.

She has so far travelled to five countries and said it was “very difficult” applying for some of the visas.

One example cited was Taiwan. Ma Khin Myat said she needed to first go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Nay Pyi Taw then to the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Bangkok, only to find her paperwork was incorrect.

“Visa processes are discouraging young people like me from traveling,” she said.

Negotiating these labyrinthine processes is a big part of Aung Myat Lwin’s job.

The travel agent at Oriental Century organises a variety of visas on behalf of his clients.

“We often need many documents from our travellers,” said Aung Myat Lwin.

“Japan and South Korea in particular require a lot, like bank statements, property information, business details and so on. Some people just don’t have these. It’s not easy.”

“My clients have the money to visit places and the actual visas aren’t too expensive, but the process is such a barrier.”

But he said there had been some recent good news on this front.

Myanmar's passport is one of the most restrictive in the world.Myanmar's passport is one of the most restrictive in the world.

Since September 2015, Myanmar people no longer need a visa to visit Thailand if arriving by air for trips of 14 days or less. Aung Myat Lwin said he had noticed a spike in travel to Thailand since then.

Myanmar passport holders can also enter six other ASEAN countries visa-free: Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei. ASEAN member states have been discussing a visa-free travel arrangement for the entire bloc since 2006, but to little avail.

Several ASEAN bodies endorse this idea, such as the ASEAN Tourism Association (ASEANTA).

“The confusing mix of visa requirements and visa prices … is a major barrier,” said the president of ASEANTA, Aileen Clemente. “Visa-free travel would substantially ease mobility.”

Clemente said that visas inevitably meant much more advance planning.

“Travellers cannot finalise plans since everything is tentative,” she said. “Unlike a visa-free situation, where travellers can go ahead and plan spontaneous trips.”

It remains unclear how much time and resources the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) is investing in new bilateral visa-free arrangements. But the issue seems to be on the radar of officials.

“In my opinion, Myanmar people gain many benefits from visa-free travel,” said MOFA director general U Sein Oo. “People-to-people contact is very important these days.”

He said such arrangements would also have economic benefits for both the countries concerned.

The Myanmar Times contacted the embassies of Australia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States in Yangon. Myanmar travellers need a visa for all of these countries.

Those that replied indicated no immediate plans to change visa arrangements despite Myanmar’s ongoing political and economic developments.

However, spokespeople for the Australian, Singaporean, UK and US embassies said they were committed to further assisting Myanmar people navigate their visa processes.

The Japanese and South Korean embassies did not reply.

On a more positive note, Trevor Wilson, a former Australian ambassador to Myanmar who now works at the Australian National University’s Department of Political and Social Change, said the process of actually obtaining a passport here had dramatically improved.

“In previous times, it was easier to get a Myanmar passport if you were a Myanmar official travelling on official business,” he said. “In recent years, it has been much easier for ordinary Myanmar citizens to obtain passports. Even people not from wealthy families can do so.”

He said that the lifting of residual sanctions against Myanmar could see the passport gain improved standing internationally.

“The new NLD government may [also] result in an improvement in the treatment accorded to Myanmar passports by some other countries,” he said.

In the meantime, Khin Myat will keep trying to travel, despite potential visa obstacles.

She said there will hopefully be a few more international entries on her travel blog soon.

“Travel is the best education. It can give you ideas. It can change you,”she said.

“If the world really cares about us then travel should be made as easy as possible.”