Myanmar (Burma): To go or not to go?

by Joe Cummings, author of Lonely Planet's Myanmar (Burma)

Several well-intended groups and individuals including National League for Democracy (NLD) spokesperson and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi have urged non-Burmese not to visit Burma, believing that all forms of tourism support government repression in Burma. Others claim that international visitation helps educate the world as to what's really going on in the country, filling in the gaps left by narrowly focused refugee and activist reports, and by reporters on one-week jaunts through the country. One view says most of the revenue generated by travel and tourism ends up in the hands of the military regime, while another says the evidence points the other way. Very little concrete, verifiable data is displayed by either side. The following is a personal view, based on 10 years of close association with Burma as the principal author of Lonely Planet's guidebook to that country.

From what I have seen and experienced, tourism development in Burma benefits many ordinary Burmese, not just generals or foreign investors as some reports would have us believe. In spite of high inflation the average Burmese today is politically and economically better off than in 1985 and anyone who says otherwise either hasn't traveled to Burma both then and now, or is deliberately delivering misleading information to serve a political agenda.

The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the latest junta to run Burma, is abominable. Public dissent has been suppressed since Ne Win's 1962 takeover. Political imprisonment, torture and corvee (involuntary civilian service to the state) have been around for centuries. If anything, human rights abuses have decreased in the face of increased tourism. Since the package-tour requirement was waived in 1993, many Burmese citizens have been able to eke out a living from tourism, which channels more money directly to ordinary people than any other form of foreign activity in the country. I recently spoke by phone with Ko Kyaw, an old friend of mine who works as a tour guide in Burma. He sends almost every kyat / dollar he earns to his family in Bagan. Ko Kyaw voted for the NLD and is an ardent supporter of Daw Suu Kyi, but he was very disappointed to learn about The Lady' s call for a boycott. He says there' s just barely enough tourism to keep him and his family alive, and that if a boycott has a significant effect, many people in Mandalay, Bagan and the western Shan State will suffer. He's not the only one who sees it this way. I haven't met a single person inside Burma who supported a tourism boycott, including the many people I have met in the pro-democracy movement - including even the Moustache Bros of Mandalay who are now serving 10 years in prison for satirizing the government during a pwe performance.

Does tourism boost the use of draft labor in Burma? None of the highway or railways projects cited by tourism critics can be said to be serving tourists more than the general populace, in fact the opposite appears to be true. The two railway lines that were built by draft labor - the Ye Dawei line and the Loikaw railway - are both off-limits to foreigners. The Yangon-Mandalay highway has been upgraded for cargo and passenger traffic, and even the 1st-class buses (operated by nearly a dozen private companies now) running along this route are filled mostly with Burmese -- one of the obvious signs that economic development is taking place, at least in urban areas. The vast majority of foreign visitors travel this route by air. The only draft labor project that can be indirectly attributed to tourist promotion was the restoration earlier this year of the Mandalay Palace, as much a symbol of Burmese nationalism as a tourist attraction. The use of draft labor was discontinued at the palace shortly after foreign visitors to Mandalay began reporting the phenomenon to the outside world (though convict labor was used throughout). Urban beautification projects, which have also used draft labor, have been undertaken in areas that aren't visited by tourists as well as those that are. The greatest human rights abuses currently take place away from foreign public view, though they are becoming more difficult to hide with the proliferation of independent travelers finding their way into decreasingly remote corners of the country. If Burma closes to tourism, it will fall almost entirely into the hands of unscrupulous investors in other sectors who could care less about the ethics of totalitarian government as long as no one from the international community is around to observe their activities.

If you decide to visit Burma to see for your self, go with as much advance information as possible and travel with your eyes and ears open. Many foreigners leading the boycott movement haven't been to Burma since 1988 or 1989 (or haven't been at all) and tend not to distinguish between Burma in 1996 and Burma in 1989. I've traveled to Burma every year but one since 1986. In the past year alone I have spent four months traveling to nearly every state in the country. I have long-time friends in Burma including members of the underground resistance, risking their lives on a daily basis - who maintain that sealing Burma off from the outside world only further cements SLORC's fear-driven control over the people.

If you'd like to maximize the positive impact of a visit to Burma and minimize support of the government, follow these simple tactics:

1. Don't stay in government-owned hotels. Stay at private, locally owned hotels or guest houses.

2. Don ' t take Myanmar Tours & Travel (the state tourist agency) tours.

3. Don't take modes of transport for which MTT controls the tickets (e.g. the Mandalay Express train and the Mandalay-Bagan boat). Take Iocal transport.

4. Buy handicrafts directly from the artisans rather than from government shops.

As of 1996, well over 90% of all tourist-oriented businesses in the country belonged to the private sector, so avoiding government-owned or government-operated concessions is fairly easy. Whatever you decide, there isn't a single indication that government repression, which has thrived on 34 years of political isolation and virtual non-visitation, will somehow slacken due to a relative lack of foreign visitors. And if the private sector were somehow to suffer as a result of a boycott, SLORC will simply blame the opposition and continue raking in hard currency through their total monopoly on gems, minerals, timber and energy resources -- now and always the regime's main sources of revenue.

Tourism remains one of the only industries to which the ordinary people have access. Any reduction in tourism automatically means a reduction in local income-earning opportunities. For this reason alone, I continue to believe that the positives of travel to Burma outweigh the negatives.


*** Note:

In 1997, SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) changed its name to SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) -- a different name, but the same military dictatorship with the same brutal policies.

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