Military opens up Burma to tourism

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The Independent Online
To enforced jollity at home and a chorus of protests abroad, the Burmese military government yesterday launched a campaign to attract tourists to the once- reclusive nation.

In Britain, the Burmese Action Group, will hold a rally tonight to call for a boycott on holiday travel to Burma as a protest against the suppression of political and human rights - including the enslavement of children and adults to build tourist facilities.

Hopes that the meeting, at the Royal Institution in London, would receive a recorded statement of support from the pro-democracy campaigner, Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, appear to have been dashed. New restrictions imposed by the government have made it impos- sible for Ms Suu Kyi to transmit a message, say organisers of the conference, which is partly sponsored by The Independent.

Instead, Mairead Maguire, a Nobel laureate for services to peace in Northern Ireland, will read out a compilation of extracts from speeches and writings by Ms Suu Kyi in the last year. The meeting will also see an interview with Ms Suu Kyi recorded earlier this month by Glenys Kinnock MEP, in which she urges a boycott of tourism, investment and trade.

"It all adds up. Drops of water make up the ocean," the Burmese opposition leader says, in the video smuggled out by Mrs Kinnock. "Sanctions are effective ... They are of symbolic as well as practical importance."

The government - the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) - marked the beginning of "Visit Myanmar Year" yesterday with an Olym- pics-style ceremony, featuring dancing elephants, floats, traditional music and bright costumes. The effect was somewhat spoiled by military officers shouting orders to performers.

Lieutenant-General Khin Nyunt, head of military intelligence and the ominously titled Secretary One of the Slorc, told thousands of Burmese, diplomats and foreign businessmen who packed into a stadium in Rangoon: "Today is a red-letter day for tourism in Myanmar (Burma). We are celebrating not only the launching of Visit Myanmar Year ... but also our commitment to open our doors to the world."

The Slorc hopes to attract more than 300,000 foreigners to Burma over the next 12 months. Campaigners around the world hope to hijack the event, however and publicise the excesses of the regime. In Brussels yesterday, Mrs Kinnock led a picket outside the offices of Club Med, which has recently begun tours to Burma. The protest was joined by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, which cited extensive evidence of the use of slave labour in Burma. A spokesman for the ICFTU said women, children and elderly people had been forced to work on new motorways, railways, bridges and tourist sites, including the Golden Palace at Mandalay.

In Britain, the Burma Action Group UK reports that four tour operators have dropped Burma from their schedules, but another 30 still offer travel packages to Burma. "Overall, we are confident that there will be no increase in UK tourism to Burma," said Yvette Mahon, a spokeswoman for the group.

Ms Suu Kyi has been especially vocal in calling for a tour-ism boycott. She said recently: "Travel, it is said, broadens the mind. But there are times when breadth of vision dictates that travel be curbed in the interests of justice and humanity."