Overall Crime and Safety Situation
Many criminal acts go unreported or uninvestigated in Burma, making it very difficult to assess the level of criminal activity. Police precincts routinely under-report incidents in their areas of coverage. Government of Burma (GOB) crime statistics are generally unreliable, and statistics for areas outside of Rangoon are not regularly available. Travelers should be aware that the potential for crime against foreigners may be higher in some regions outside of Rangoon, particularly in remote areas with a limited security presence. Overland travel outside of major cities may present a problem for foreigners if they are not accompanied by a Burmese speaking companion to facilitate interactions with non-English speakers. The GOB established a Tourist Police Unit in 2006, but lack of proper funding and training and pervasive corruption prevent the unit from being effective.
The most commonly reported crimes among diplomats are non-violent crimes of opportunity, such as pick-pocketing and theft of unattended packages. Many observers believe that criminal activity in general, including property crime (theft from vehicles and home burglaries), appears to be on the rise due to worsening economic conditions; however, there are no statistics to support that assumption. There were no incidents of criminal activity against any U.S. Embassy Rangoon personnel in 2009. There have been occasional turf battles between rival criminal groups that sometimes turn violent. Those incidents are not directed at embassy or American citizens, and none occurred in 2009. Generally, the areas in Rangoon where those incidents occur are not areas frequented by the communities mentioned above.
Most roadways and vehicles are old and poorly maintained. Public transportation is very commonly used by locals. However, most trains and buses are not well maintained and are frequently out of service. Taxis are the best method of transportation in Rangoon, but many are also unsafe due to poor maintenance and the lack of seatbelts. Enforcement of traffic laws is haphazard and often used as a means of soliciting a bribe in lieu of a citation. Drivers must always be alert for pedestrians and animals walking into traffic. Flooding during the rainy season can be a problem, especially with regard to potholes. Drivers often do not use headlights at night, and Rangoon’s few traffic lights are often out of service.
In September 2007, large anti-government demonstrations took place throughout the
country, which prompted a violent crackdown from the GOB. The protests began after fuel prices doubled and eventually developed into large, peaceful, pro-democracy marches. Although there have been no major protests since 2007, the government has not addressed the root cause of grievances, and demonstrations could reoccur. The GOB continues to arrest individuals suspected of being involved in the democracy movement and often imposes long jail sentences for what appear to be minor offenses. Several ethnic groups that populate border areas have been engaged in a long-standing armed struggle with the GOB, although many insurgent groups have entered into ceasefire arrangements with the regime in the past decades. The Regional Security Office (RSO) advises visitors to avoid large crowds and political demonstrations, as the government reaction could turn violent.
Pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 resulted in a violent response by the GOB, which promised a multi-party election to end the protests. In 1990, the GOB held elections, which the main democratic opposition party won overwhelmingly. The GOB refused to honor the election results and instead further tightened its grip on power. Many key demands and grievances of Burma’s ethnic nationalities have also gone unanswered.
Regional Terrorism and Organized Crime
All anti-GOB groups are considered terrorist organizations by the GOB, including some peaceful political organizations. Several armed groups in border regions engage in criminal activities, including narcotics production and sales, gem smuggling, and timber and human trafficking.
International Terrorism or Transnational Terrorism
Presently, there is no evidence of any terrorist groups targeting American interests in Burma. Burma has a small Muslim population that has no history of anti-American rhetoric or activity. The GOB is not a state sponsor of terrorism and does not permit foreign fighters to transit its borders. Money-laundering is not used to support terrorist activities or terrorist organizations in Burma.
All recent demonstrations by pro-democracy groups have been peaceful, but the GOB’s responses can be violent. Such responses, coupled with poor economic conditions, have the potential to spark civil unrest in the future.
Environmental Hazards, Such as Earthquakes and Floods
During the early part of the rainy season (May through October), street flooding is pervasive in Burmese cities due to inadequate drainage systems. Low-lying villages also flood, causing food shortages in some areas. Individuals visiting Burma during the rainy season should be careful when traveling on roads and in villages close to lakes, major rivers, and the ocean. Major earthquake fault lines cross Burma, making the chance of earthquakes ever present. Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 caused extensive flooding in Rangoon and Irrawaddy Divisions resulting in over 138,000 deaths and severely damaging transportation, communication, and electrical infrastructure.
Industrial and Transportation Accidents
None of Burma’s domestic airlines are approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and their safety records are not open to the public. In February 2007, an Air Bagan flight overran a runway, causing minor injuries to several passengers. Other forms of transportation inside the country, such as trains and inter-city buses, are old and poorly maintained. Trains and buses are not recommended, and passengers ride them at their own risk. U.S. Embassy Rangoon recommends that American travelers not use Myanmar Airlines or Air Bagan, due to safety and poor supervision concerns. There have been no reports of industrial accidents at this time.
There were no reported kidnappings of American citizens in 2009.
Drug and Narco-terrorism
Several ethnic groups in the border region are heavily involved in drug trafficking. Burma’s production of opium is second only to Afghanistan. Methamphetamines are quickly becoming another major narcotic produced in Burma. Some of the ethnic groups use the funding from illegal activities to support their armed confrontation with the GOB.
Despite the creation of a Tourist Police Unit, the host country’s law enforcement services are generally unresponsive, under equipped and poorly trained. Corruption is pervasive and some GOB officials collaborate with criminals, or carry out crimes themselves under protection of their official status. Most criminal acts go unreported and/or are not investigated. Response time can be extremely long, if any response occurs at all. Police often blame lack of transportation for their slow response.
How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment
Police will often signal both foreign and domestic motorists to stop to collect a “donation.” When in doubt, always comply with police instructions, identify yourself as an American, and ask to speak to an American embassy consular officer. In most instances, police do not speak English and will not pursue a bribe if language seems to be a barrier.
Where to Turn for Assistance if You Become a Victim of a Crime
In Rangoon, the central police telephone number is 199. The fire emergency number is 191 or 192.
Medical services in Rangoon are far below most basic western standards. Although the embassy does not officially endorse specific medical service providers, the SOS (AEA) International Clinic in the only international-level service with limited local facilities approved by U.S. Embassy Rangoon. In the event of a medical emergency, American citizens should ask to be taken to a hospital, such as Yangon General Hospital, and request that the American embassy and/or the SOS Clinic be notified.
Contact Information for Local Hospitals and Clinics
SOS is located at the Inya Lake Hotel.
Telephone: 667871 or 667879.
Air ambulance services can be arranged through SOS.
How to Avoid Becoming a Victim
The most common crime reported in Burma is theft of unaccompanied items. If individuals take the simple precaution of not leaving possessions unattended, they should not fall victim to this crime. Visitors should obey all laws and follow any instructions given to them by local authorities.
The border regions of Burma are areas of armed conflict and organized crime and should be avoided.
Embassy Contact Numbers
American citizens can contact the embassy in case of an emergency 24 hours a day, using the embassy’s main number: (95) 1-536-509 ext 4014.
The following list provides other extensions in case of an emergency:
Post 1: ext 4014
OSAC Country Council
Burma does not have an OSAC Country Council.
Any questions can be directed to RSO William Mellott or ARSO Miguel Suau.