The Moral Minefield
By Aung Zaw
So you’re planning to visit Burma? Then read this first…
One question often posed by foreign friends and visitors who come to my office is whether they should visit Burma. I find it difficult to offer a straightforward answer.
In order to sound out the opinions of others, I put the same question to other foreign friends and Burmese people involved in Burmese affairs and the tourism business. Understandably, their reaction is mixed and cautious.
Many shared the view that Burma has the potential to become a top tourist destination in Southeast Asia, if developed properly, but that it still has a long way to go.
Since last October, prior to the high season, local papers and pro-regime journals were upbeat. In early October, the 7 Day News journal reported on an American millionaire’s visit to Pagan and Mandalay—“An American named Mr Sam Zell who is on the Forbes magazine list of the 400 richest Americans and his six-member party arrived in Bagan (Pagan) by helicopter on 5 October.”
Hotels at Chaung Tha Beach, on the Bay of Bengal, were also ready to welcome tourists, and had received many reservations, the paper claimed, extolling the peaceful and relaxing holidays to be enjoyed there.
In December, a European traveler who often visits Burma noted that a Thai Airways flight to Rangoon was full. Although EU governments discourage their citizens from visiting Burma, holidaymakers included Swiss, German and French tourists.
“Your country has the potential to become a top tourist destination,” said the traveler. “Many want to visit Burma, but the regime has little idea how to promote tourism.”
He cautioned, however, that the tourism industry was still very much controlled by the military and its cronies. He saw taxi drivers, tourist guides and hoteliers enthusiastically awaiting the arrival of more tourists. If tourism ever became one of Burma’s main sources of income, the military and its cronies would monopolize it, he said.
I know that tourism brings both joy and tears to Burma. Since the regime launched the “Visit Myanmar Year” campaign in 1996, roads have been widened, hotels built and expanded, and some historical palaces have been renovated.
At Ngwe Saung beach, a popular tourist destination, villagers living along the beach were relocated when the regime wanted to promote the resort. Villagers still bitterly talk about the forced evictions, which occurred without compensation.
Hotels, roads and highways were built by regime-friendly companies. One of the top hotels in Rangoon, Traders, was built by the Asia World Company, which is run by former drug lord Lo Hsing-han and his son, Steven Law. There is no doubt that drug money has been poured into the tourism industry. Likewise, several ethnic businessmen and former warlords who were involved in shady business and illicit trade have invested in bus lines, transportation and the construction of hotels and resorts.
Be that as it may, the tourism industry is still at a standstill in Burma. Tour companies reacted only with optimism when Burma’s neighbors faced troubles and natural disasters. For instance, they saw only the benefits of a spillover of tourists when Bali was attacked by terrorists or when neighbors were hit by the 2004 tsunami.
In 1994, two years before the “Visit Myanmar” campaign, about 47,230 tourists visited Burma. In 1996, the regime set the target at 500,000. Only 10 years later, according to official figures, was this target somehow attained.
The trouble is that Burma’s military leaders have little idea of what tourists want to see in their country. The sleepy Hotels and Tourism Ministry moved to the new capital Naypyidaw, central Burma, in 2005. The irony is there is not much the ministry can do from there to lure tourists.
Consequently, local people and some tour guides in Rangoon told me that it is not the boycott campaign alone that is hurting tourism, but the regime must also share the blame.
I still think the famous tombs in Rangoon, including those of former UN Secretary General U Thant, independence hero Aung San, and Burma’s last queen Suphayalat, should be perfect tourist sites, but they lie neglected and overgrown.
Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who asked tourists to avoid Burma until democracy is restored, thought of tourism and its impact. She once confided to a visiting diplomat that if her party had been in power, the construction of Traders Hotel so close to the Sule pagoda in downtown Rangoon would not have been approved. But such thoughts and any helpful advice on tourism fall on deaf ears.
Just before the regime launched the tourism campaign in 1996, a local business magazine, Dana, prepared an article outlining prospects for tourism in Burma. The article contained some interesting points, including offering advice on how the country should promote eco-tourism, business and cultural tourism. The article urged Burma to focus more on economic development, agriculture and exports. The regime’s notorious censorship board axed the article.
Tourism is certainly a mixed bag.
But at the end of the day, tourism could become one of the main sources of income in Burma. Thus, private sector and tourism officials in Burma should be on their guard to prevent overdevelopment and should learn the downside of tourism from the experience of neighboring countries.
Some Burma-based tour companies I spoke to talked about responsible tourism, eco-tourism, and quality tourism, but also community-based travelers programs such as home stays, ethno-museums, and educational programs that bring tourist dollars directly into communities.
Whether tourists can also encourage democracy in Burma is doubtful. When Suu Kyi was asked by a journalist whether democracy could be promoted and human rights abuses prevented more effectively by tourists than by international isolation, she shot back: “Burmese people know their own problems better than anyone else. They know what they want—they want democracy—and many have died for it. To suggest that there’s anything new that tourists can teach the people of Burma about their own situation is not simply patronizing—it’s also racist.”
True. Although more tourists have been visiting Burma in recent years, we have also seen the regime continue to imprison activists, put pressure on international NGOs, turn a deaf ear to the UN and increase its repression of ethnic minorities.
Thus, if tourists open up the world to the people of Burma so can the people of Burma open the eyes of tourists to the situation in their own country, if they are interested in looking.
In fact, tourists do not normally care whether a country is ruled by a dictator or a democrat. As long as they feel safe and sufficient facilities are provided, they will visit any exotic place. Hence, we see increasing numbers of tourists flock into Laos, Vietnam, China and Singapore.
As I am not a campaign activist, it is not my business to tell tourists to go or not to go. If you go, that is your decision.
But Burma is a moral minefield. If you want to be politically correct, you won’t go. But if you have doubts about the boycott campaign and want to see Burma with your own eyes, then I think you’d better buy a ticket now.
But if you do go, I ask you to be a guest of those ordinary Burmese people who also want to be able to travel, free from military dictatorship.
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