Suu Kyi urges Britons to boycott Burma
As the authorities push tourism, resistance symbol Aung San Suu Kyi tells award-winning travel writer Harriet O'Brien why visitors should stay away
Harriet O’Brien is a travel writer and award-winning author. Her first book Forgotten Land, a rediscovery of Burma was published just before she joined The Independent, her second Queen Emma and Vikings, a few years after she left. She was on staff at The Independent during the 1990s and subsequently worked in Canada and then as managing editor at Conde Nast Traveller before going freelance in order to travel more. She mainly covers the UK, Europe and Asia, where she grew up.
Sunday 17 March 1996
The State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) has declared 1996 "Visit Myanmar Year", Myanmar being the official name for Burma. But Ms Suu Kyi, who had previously taken the attitude that some foreign investment and tourism would help to ease the military's grip on the country, has changed her mind. "Make 1996 a year for not visiting Burma," she said in an interview with the Independent on Sunday, at her crumbling home on the banks of Inya Lake in Rangoon, Burma's capital.
She was appalled that a British trade delegation recently visited Burma, saying: "It is not right for the British government to do all it can to support human rights here and then to promote trade with Burma against democracy. The sort of involvement being suggested won't help to bring about sustained economic and social development."
The Department of Trade and Industry said it organised the British mission so that "companies could gauge the market for themselves", and stressed that the Government had consistently called on Slorc to show greater respect for human rights. The British-based Burma Action Group, which campaigns for democracy in Burma, maintains that Britain has invested more than pounds 48m in the Burmese hotel industry.
For most of its 34 years in power, Burma's xenophobic military authorities have sought to isolate the country, actively discouraging tourism. Ms Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma's independence hero, Aung San, was placed under six years of house arrest after a democracy movement was crushed at the cost of thousands of lives in 1988. The restrictions on her have been eased as the price for bringing Burma out of diplomatic quarantine, and the junta is now actively promoting foreign contacts.
The fanfare for "Visit Myanmar Year" is due to begin when the new tourist season starts in October, and Rangoon, Mandalay and Pagan - Burma's principal tourist destinations - reverberate with the sound of concrete mixers as hotels pop up at a frenetic rate.
"Burma will always be here," Ms Suu Kyi said. "Visitors should come later." Believing that tourism is being used to give the appearance of a thriving, stable country, she is indignant about the amount of money being pumped into hotels and restaurants rather than schools and hospitals. "So much has been concentrated on the tourist industry . . . but beyond the tourist areas much of it is the same as ever." Even in the heart of Rangoon, most side streets look depressingly run-down.
"Most materials for hotels are imported," Ms Suu Kyi explained. "The result is that each hotel signifies a lot of money, but really only for overseas suppliers. Some construction companies have even been bringing in workers from abroad. Within the country there's really only one privileged group making money."
Three years ago tourism hardly existed in Burma: Mandalay had just three hotels at the end of 1992. Today it has at least 60, and many more under construction. Although official figures show that at least 50,000 tourists are expected this year, compared with only 9,000 in 1992, it seems highly unlikely that all these will be even half-filled over the next few years. Many Burmese, however, say that is irrelevant. The aim is to be able to buy land and ship in foreign goods, such as air conditioners, fridges, and furniture, tax-free. "You can import very cheaply far more than you actually need, and then sell all the surplus for a vast profit," a Rangoon resident said. "That way you can recover your building costs, and more, before the hotel is even completed."
Tourism has rapidly become one of the biggest potential earners, and doctors and engineers are finding it more profitable to become taxi drivers and tour operators.
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