Kate Simon: Tourism is a lame weapon against the Burmese junta

Travel View

It was good to hear Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy leader, giving the first of this year's Reith Lectures last week on the subject of "securing freedom". (Her second and final lecture will be broadcast by the BBC on Tuesday.)

The speeches were recorded in secret and smuggled out of Burma, but how long will the generals tolerate her speaking out? Last week, she was warned in a letter from the junta that any attempt to address supporters in a planned tour of the country could spark violence.

When the Nobel Peace laureate was released from house arrest last November, her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), said it wanted to relax its tourism boycott, which started in 1996 in response to the dictatorship's tourism initiative, Visit Myanmar. The NLD said that it would seek to encourage individuals and small groups to gain a better understanding of the ongoing political and economic situation under the junta's rule, but remained resolute that visitors should not use large tour operators and cruise ships that contribute "significant revenue to the dictatorship". The Burma Campaign UK and Tourism Concern have been key yo conveying this message in Britain.

The NLD's cautious approach to tourism underlines the fact that though San Suu Kyi has been released, little else has changed in Burma. From time to time, the regime has felt obliged to respond to international criticism, hence the recent sham elections that it has sought to use to legitimise the dictatorship.

In reality, the generals continue to arm themselves to the teeth at the expense of the health and welfare of ordinary Burmese people. Also, human rights abuses, such as the forced removal of people from their homes and the incarceration and torture of more than 2,000 people for calling for democracy, continue unabated.

Spreading the word is a useful weapon in the armoury of the pro-democracy forces and tourism can provide some of the ammunition. But it will be mass defiance on the streets, of the kind we've already seen in the protests by students and intellectuals in 1988 and the monks in 2007, that finally topples this brutal dictatorship.

***

Who can blame Essex for indulging in a bit of rebranding. This county has suffered years of rubbish sexist jokes and now the Towies – a breed found across the UK, not just Essex, that prizes fame over integrity.

Anyone who has bothered to visit this corner of England will know there's more to it than post-war new towns and kiss-me-quick hats. Those who haven't will find plenty to explore, from Colchester's fine Roman remains to Constable Country in Dedham Vale and the Stour Valley.

So, considering how ignorant people often are about Essex, it seems to me that the local tourist authorities have come up with the perfect new name for the county's shoreline – the "Discovery Coast".

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