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The Controversial Burma Debate

Cat McGovern and Paul Gourdon | 03.06.2007 11:07 | Repression | Social Struggles | World

With the review of Burma’s democratic figurehead for the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest having passed on the 27th May this year and her freedom denied her, Cat McGovern and Paul Gourdon have carried out some extensive research into one of the main areas concerning her drive for democracy, namely the pros and cons of tourism to Burma.

It is no secret that there are taboos about travelling to Burma. Many prominent political figures, including Tony Blair and William Hague support the boycotting of tourism in Burma. Blair supported the campaign ‘I’m not going’ which was launched in February 2005, and stressed; “I would urge anyone who may be thinking of visiting Burma on holiday to consider carefully whether by their actions they are helping to support the regime and prolong such dreadful abuses.” Travelling to Burma directly funds the military regime and contributes to the already glaring human rights abuses which seem to be overlooked. It is said that visiting only oppresses the people and does not help them in any way. There are many organisations which support the boycott of tourism and campaign this wholly and some who encourage ‘ethical tourism’, which supports the targeted spending of tourists with the aim of improving civilian standards of living, but who is right?

In 1988 Burma experienced an uprising of mammoth proportions, initiated by a group of students accompanied by monks and civilians from various echelons of society.

Together, they grouped to protest against the intolerable absence of human rights and democracy which had been prevalent for generations and continued to be denied them by the existing totalitarian regime.

Out of the ashes of this uprising, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), today known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) was formed by the military regime to quell the perceived threat to the government of secession and rebellion by ethnic and separatists groups throughout Burma.

The attitude of boycott to Burma began as a response to the military regime’s promotion of ‘Visit Myanmar Year 1996’, the ‘Year of the tourist’. The SPDC openly admitted that tourism is a vital source of income into the country hence why many groups urge people to stay away.

Aung San Suu Kyi, has pleaded to tourists not to come to the country as by visiting it promotes and encourages human rights abuses to her people.

“I still think that people should not come to Burma because of the bulk of the money from tourism goes straight into the pockets of the generals. And not only that, it’s a form of moral support for them because it makes the military authorities think that the international community is not opposed to the human rights violations which they are committing all the time. They seem to look on the influx of tourists as proof that their actions are accepted by the world.” (Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, January, 1999)

The amount of tourists visiting Burma in 05-06 is 660,000 but 427,000 of them were cross-border tourists according to The Ministry of Tourism statistics. However, the number of ‘cultural tourists’ is 25,000 which amounts to a small percentage of money brought in by way of tourism.

Having spoken to groups representing both sides of the debate, it becomes apparent that although they possess distinctly opposing views on one level, they also agree on some of the fundamental premises regarding the impact of tourism on Burma.

Emily Pelter, representing ‘Voices for Burma’ (VFB), an organization dedicated to raising awareness of the plight of the Burmese people and to achieve empowerment and fair representation by visiting Burma, is of the view that regardless of which side of the tourist debate one sides with, the aims of all groups are essentially one and the same, she says that, “we have similar aims in a lot of ways; we have different ways of getting there, different views on how you should best get there.”

VFB’s camaraderie is refreshingly optimistic and fair but can this carry enough weight to bring about the changes necessary to unhinge a regime bent on ruling its subjects with the specter of fear and intimidation?

A campaigner, who wishes to remain anonymous thinks otherwise, they say, “this very romantic notion that if you fly to Myanmar you can see first hand what’s happening to the people [is not true] and I honestly don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

Campaigns Officer and Karen refugee Zoya Phan, of Burma Campaign UK states her position in no uncertain terms confirming, “If you ask me the reasons why we boycott tourism I can tell you. The first reason is because it becomes one of the key sources for the Burmese regime to keep their economic lifeline alive and to feed their soldiers and they use these to attack ethnic nationalities, other ethnic groups and attack their own civilians like myself and we can’t go home. If we went home now we would be in prison or jail and would be killed, that is the main reason why we call for [a] boycott to tourism.”

The reason why both groups are keen to either stop or encourage ‘ethical tourism’ is because of the gross human rights abuses which are linked to tourism. During the ‘Visit Myanmar Year 1996’ many activists groups declared this ‘Don’t Visit Year 1996’. This is because in order to prepare the country for a new batch of tourists, the ruling junta inflicted serious human rights cruelty on its citizens. On the VFB website they identify that, ‘In February 1995, The International Federation of Trade Unions reported that one million had been forced from their homes in Rangoon, in preparation for foreign investment and tourism in particular.’ They also note that there were ‘accounts of forced labour in building hotels and roads are numerous, with labourers working with their legs in chains and often dying of exhaustion.’ Failure to comply can result in punitive measures being taken by the state including prosecution and severe beatings which can lead to death.

In addition, forced relocations provides free reign for the junta to order villagers to leave their homes and land; their only means of livelihood in short notice, typically a period of one week. With their crops and possessions burnt to cinders, they are left with no other option other than to seek refuge on the outskirts of other towns or fleeing to the jungle, neither one being a viable prospect.

Conversely, a paper published by Paul Strachan, who runs the ‘Irrawaddy Flotilla Company’, on the 14th June, 2006, highlights the benefits of tourism to Burma. ‘Whilst a worker gets $1 a day a tour guide can make $50 a day… If the guesstimate for Burmese people working in tourism is 5,000 then perhaps 50,000 benefit through spin off and trickle down. Workers in the tourism sector receive skills, language and management training.’ However, he does draw attention to where most of Burma’s revenue originates, ‘The sad fact is that the bulk of Burma’s tourism revenue comes from gambling and prostitution, both controlled by drug cartels and their attendant mafias.’ He mentions that there are specialist travel agencies set up which offer sex package tours for Thai, South Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese groups of men. The girls ‘supplied’ to them have been sold by their destitute and starving families into white slavery. It is claimed that some can be as young as twelve or thirteen years old.

Interestingly, in relation to cross border interaction, Pelter points out that “The majority of tourists that go to Burma are actually Asian tourists, not Western tourists, from Thailand. A lot of Thai’s go over there and a lot of Chinese especially. It’s mostly border town tourism, going over to trade in tourism, going over to use the casinos, that kind of thing, cos you don’t get those in Thailand. The Chinese pop over to go to the karaoke bars.”

In addition to the exploitation of girls through the sex trade, the army is also guilty of contributing to it as well. Soldiers rape women, including girls as young as 14, in the hope of impregnating them, thereby creating supposedly ‘ethnically pure’ Burmese children. It is a form of psychological repression, intended to demoralize local ethnic populations, preventing them from even considering any kind of resistance.

Speaking with Dominic Earnshaw, who used to work for a Thai NGO, Burma Issues, he believes that tourism can help the country and bring in a vital source of income. He stresses that care should be taken to avoid goods and services that provide direct funds to the government.

“Though the terrible conditions and persecution faced by those in the ethnic areas should never be disregarded and will never be seen by tourists, it is worth remembering that the main problem faced by the average person in central Burma is poverty and lack of employment opportunities. Tourism can offer hope to a proportion of these people and pump money into local economies.”

Given this situation, to what degree can tourism justifiably be linked to human rights abuses in Burma? Phan points out that, “They [the junta] need money, they desperately need money. Since [the] 1988 uprising in Burma, the regime doubled the size of the army, and how will they feed this army? They need money, so they welcome foreign investment; they welcome tourism in order to keep their economic lifeline alive.”

In response to this, Pelter states, “We do feel that the majority of it [your money] going to the right people is better than none of it going to the right people”

Both of the main groups seem to follow Aung San Suu Kyi’s wishes and beliefs but when reading through the VFB website, they interpret her stance as being sympathetic towards accepting visitors to the country. It states that she has said, ‘Visitors to the country can be useful, depending on what they do and how they go about it.’ However, when this interpretation was presented to Phan she refuted the claim saying that VFB misrepresented her. “Tourism is completely different from visitors.” Says Phan, “tourists… they go there just for their benefits. They [are not] interest[ed] in the development of the country. They are not interested in contributing to democracy or human rights or anything.”

Tour operator ‘Kuoni’ believe that by limiting their interaction with the government they can avoid the dangers associated with tourism to Burma. When questioned about Kuoni’s stance on ‘responsible tourism’, another campaigner said, “I don’t believe that on a mass organized scale that there can be any such thing as responsible tourism to Burma at the present time. I’m not convinced. I wait for these people to show me how it can. It’s not responsible to fund a military regime that oppresses its people, it’s as simple as that and that’s all you can do. That’s not responsible tourism. That’s aiding genocide and torture and imprisonment of political leaders. That’s not responsible in the slightest”

So, considering the evident human rights issues currently encompassing tourism, can we, as VFB posit, take the view that all roads lead to Rome and all organizations ultimately have the same objectives in quashing the current status –quo. Or is it simply a romantic notion which lacks realism and practicality?

Maybe we should respect Aung San Suu Kyi who, after all, rightfully represents the true people of Burma saying, “Visiting now is tantamount to condoning the regime” or as Phan, vehemently stresses in a recent Observer article that, ‘I have seen those consequences [of funding through tourism] first hand. My village attacked, my friends killed, women and children raped, villagers tortured, mutilated and killed. Your tourism dollars help pay for that, so please, for now, stay away.’

Cat McGovern and Paul Gourdon
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Display the following 2 comments

  1. british propaganda — li
  2. Huh? — ymu