Boycott Burma: To go or not to go?

Tourist have long been discouraged from travelling to Burma. But the argument - which has been reignited in the wake of Cyclone Nargis - is far from simple. Here three people who know the country make the cases for and against

There’s nothing like having your preconceived ideas shaken up a bit by meeting people who are personally involved in an issue you thought you knew about.

I had always thought the arguments of those who supported a travel boycott of Burma made sense: why should foreigners provide money to the military regime that run the country in such a brutal way? Why should tourism provide a gloss of acceptability to the generals and hadn’t Aung San Suu Kyi - the imprisoned head of the National League for Democracy opposition party - asked tourists to stay away?

But when I was in Burma most recently covering the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, I spoke with people involved in tourism who made me begin to rethink the whole issue. They told me that in a country wrought with poverty, tourism was one of the few ways people could make a living. Admittedly only a small number of the Burmese population work in this sector, but at least those people were being helped. Other people have argued that while it was once all but impossible to travel to Burma without putting money into the coffers of the regime, one can now stay in privately-run guesthouses or hotels and fly non-Burmese airlines.

The more I thought about it the more I thought I needed to consult on the issue. What follows are the opinions of a former British diplomat who runs his own web-based newsletter about Burma, a staff member of the indefatigable Burma Campaign UK and a statement from Lonely Planet, who have been widely criticised for publishing a guidebook to the country.

I admit I’m still somewhat undecided on the issue. I’d like to know what you think.

Derek Tonkin, Chairman Network Myanmar

“The hostility shown by the military regime in Burma to immediate and generous Western offers of assistance to the people of the Irrawaddy Delta devastated by Cyclone Nargis has shocked many people, and has lead to allegations ranging from xenophobia to inhumanity. In point of fact, the Burmese response to similar offers from China, India and Asean countries has been much more forthcoming. Many now realise that attempts to isolate and ostracise Burma over the past 20 years have been a disastrous failure, for it has been the Burmese people who have suffered, and not the generals.

“Western sanctions include the discouragement of travel and tourism to Burma by most EU countries, notably the UK whose political leaders have urged travel operators not to offer Burma as a travel destination on the grounds that the leader of the Opposition National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, was opposed to any action which might bring financial support and respectability to the military regime. In point of fact, her call for a boycott of travel to Burma only related to the ‘Visit Myanmar Year 1996’ and both in statements at the time and subsequently she has acknowledged that some might have good reason to visit her country as “responsible tourists”.

“The notion that all the money from tourism goes into the pockets of the generals can be dismissed out of hand. A mere US$198m gross were earned from tourism in the Financial Year ended 31 March 2007, and the results for the year ended 31 March 2008 are expected to be considerably down after the “Saffron Revolution” in September. When operating costs have been deducted, notably the provision of goods and services, very little remains by way of operating profit in an industry which has so long been depressed. Indeed, Thailand earns in only four days what Burma earns in a whole year from tourism. International class hotels, most of which are 100 per cent foreign owned, find it difficult to pay their taxes and land rentals as well as to service their debts. Indeed, far from propping up the regime as critics allege, a respectable case could be made to show that the regime actually subsidises tourism to Burma. By way of comparison, some US$2.16bn were earned from natural gas sales to Thailand in the same period.

“The tourism industry was largely privatised after 1988 and at least 300,000 Burmese people are directly employed, not counting the many tens of thousands of postcard sellers, taxi drivers, handicraft workers and stall holders who depend on tourism for their livelihoods. Together, they support families of well over 1.5 million people. Visitors to Burma say that they meet no one who even hints that they ought not to have come. The Burmese people crave contact with the outside world.

“Those who support a travel boycott cannot possibly have the interests of the Burmese people at heart.”

Hlaing Sein, Campaigns Officer, Burma Campaign UK

“It is impossible to visit Burma without funding the military dictatorship.

“Some people in the travel industry argue that tourists bring information from the outside world to the isolated local people, but what do we learn from the copies of Hello! magazine that they leave behind? If we talk about political things to tourists we risk being arrested. Only regime trained tourist guides are allowed to speak with tourists, and those tourist guides are told by the regime what to say to foreigners. As a Burmese citizen I personally didn’t experience the benefit of the tourism. The regime declared 1996 as ‘Visit Myanmar Year’ but in the same year there were some student protests in the Rangoon University and the universities were closed for several years. Even as the regime opened the doors to tourism they were still committing human rights abuses.

“Tourism helps fund the regime that oppresses us. A very small number of people make their living from tourism, and so of course they defend it, but all of us suffer from the regime that keeps us living in poverty and in fear. Three quarters of the population are farmers and these people are not benefiting from tourism industry. Luxury hotels import foreign goods for tourists instead of using local products. Tourists sit by swimming pools in hotels like those owned by Orient Express and pay five dollars for an imported can of coke. How do we benefit from that?

“The regime identified and promoted tourism as a source of foreign exchange, not as a way of providing jobs for the people. Front page articles in state owned newspapers talk about the importance of tourism to Burma, but they only mention foreign exchange, not employment for ordinary people. They need foreign dollars to buy the guns they use to rule over us. Not only does tourism fund the regime, tourist facilities have been built by forced labour. Ordinary Burmese people have been forcibly removed from their homes to clean-up areas for tourism.

“Some have tried to argue that the presence of tourists could help prevent human rights abuses, as the regime would not do certain things in front of tourists. But during the uprising last September, even before the crackdown, tourists were hiding in their hotels until they could get on the first flight out. Our people are struggling for freedom and democracy in our country.

“Tourists should think twice before they consider Burma as a tourist destination. How will their money be spent by the regime? Bear in mind that the regime spends around half its income on the military. This is the military that shoots at monks who are peacefully protesting. A military that uses rape as a weapon of war in its war of ethnic cleansing in the east of Burma, even raping girls as young as six. They torture, they assassinate, they mutilate and behead people. This is what your tourist dollars help pay for. By visiting Burma, tourists are not providing financial or moral support to us, instead they fund our oppressors. Stay away.”

Lonely Planet, publishers of Lonely Planet Myanmar Travel Guide

“Our aim in publishing this guide is to provide objective information to help travellers make informed decisions about whether or not to visit Burma. No one reading our guide could be in any doubt about our opinion of the current regime, which we describe as ‘abominable’.

“We do not accept the view that publication of a guide to Burma encourages people to visit the country for tourism purposes. People make the decision to go for themselves and would go irrespective of whether we produced a guide or not. Lonely Planet’s Burma guide outlines the arguments both for and against visiting the country: without such information travellers could make the decision to visit Burma without being aware of the situation in the country.

“The first chapter of the guide presents objectively the issues and starts with the question ‘Should You Go?’ It includes the views of Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burma Campaign UK, details of activist websites, shows how the regime profits from travellers, and, for those who do decide to go, information that enables travellers to maximise their support for the local population, and minimise the prospect of any money which they might spend going to the military regime. When such travellers return, we encourage them to speak out about what they have seen, to write to the local Burmese embassy and to share their experience with others, perhaps by participating in Lonely Planet’s own discussion forum, the Thorn Tree.

“In conclusion our decision to publish is not a show of support for the current regime and we fully support the aims of the restoration of democracy in Burma. We do not, however, believe that you create new freedoms by stifling information or banning books.”