Pariah or paradise? Burma gives tourists hard sell

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The Independent Online

"Few places on earth remain untouched in their natural beauty and charm. The ancient land of Burma is an exception to the rule," oozes the glossy brochure from the tour company, Orient Express, which promises to show travellers the best of "this fascinating, unspoilt" exotic Asian paradise, a mysterious world of gilded pagodas, sacred temples and charming people.

"Few places on earth remain untouched in their natural beauty and charm. The ancient land of Burma is an exception to the rule," oozes the glossy brochure from the tour company, Orient Express, which promises to show travellers the best of "this fascinating, unspoilt" exotic Asian paradise, a mysterious world of gilded pagodas, sacred temples and charming people.

This week, a delegation from the Burmese tourist board and a number of Burmese travel companies are due in London to entice more tourists to discover its beauty and experience its "colourful mixture of festivals, costumes and cultures". But the visit from the Burmese tourism industry to a global travel exhibition has angered human rights campaigners and incurred the displeasure of the Government.

What the delegation will not mention is that, behind the idyllic beauty and peaceful Buddhist monuments shown in the holiday brochures, lies one of the most brutal military dictatorships in the world, responsible for the rape, murder and torture of thousands of its people. Nor will it say that the cash brought to the country by tourists helps to fund a regime described by the United Nations as a "crime against humanity".

One of the Burmese tour groups that has taken a stand at the World Travel Market in London's Docklands this week, gushes: "What makes the destination most enjoyable is the people, who have been described as the most friendly, happy-faced and open-hearted." The UN paints a different picture, describing the country as a "saga of untold misery and suffering, oppression and exploitation".

In this "laid-back" country, playing a pro-democracy song can carry a seven year prison sentence. More than 60 per cent of the "smiling faces" live on less than 60p a day and only 19p per person is spent on health care.

According to the UN, the military junta treats the population as an "unlimited pool of unpaid forced labour and servants at their disposal".

Under sanctions from the US, and in the face of a failing economy, the regime has been trying to establish a tourism industry. Holiday villages are being hastily built to accommodate package tours, but reports suggest forced labour is being used.

The brochures promise to take tourists to Burma's "mysterious heart". But they make no mention of another important site, the house of Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected leader of Burma, who has been denied power for 15 years and is kept under house arrest? She has urged tourists to stay away, saying their presence condones the regime.

The ruling junta is granted a passing reference by some tour operators. Abercrombie & Kent, for example, says some travellers have "concerns about the current political regime" there. But it believes "travel dollars mean work for Burmese people".

Many hotels, however, are state owned, and campaigners believe relatives or close friends of the military own much of the private tourism industry. "Every tourist that visits funds the regime and helps to keep them in power," said Anna Roberts, campaigns officer at the Burma Campaign UK.

As the US has banned Burma from carrying out financial exchanges in dollars, Burma Campaign UK believes the hard cash exchanged at the airport's bureau de change helps the Government pay for its arms. It has called on Jack Straw to ban the delegation from entering the country.The Foreign Office wrote to the exhibition organiser, Reed Elsevier, to draw attention to the human rights abuses in the region and the Government's view that tourists should not visit Burma.

A spokesman for Reed Elsevier said: "The individuals have permission to come to Britain and the World Travel Market is a non-political event."

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