Leading blights of Burma

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Earlier this year I was offered a good sum of money by a travel firm to write a piece about Burma. Not only that, but I was offered a free flight out there and a cruise up the Irrawaddy. All I had to do afterwards was extol the place as a tourist destination, while carefully avoiding the political overtones.

The reason they had approached me rather than someone else was not hard to guess. In 1987, I had gone to Burma with a BBC film crew to make a programme called The Burma Road in the "Great Journeys" series. I had fallen in love with the country. I had written glowingly about the place and the people. Who better, the travel people must have reasoned, to send out as a herald for the tourist invasion?

The travel people may not have noticed that while I liked the place, I hated the government. Burma has been under the foot of a grim regime for as long as most people can remember, a corrupt and greedy regime of thugs who have crushed racial minorities, bled the economy dry and murdered students and monks in large numbers whenever they have protested; they were doing so before Tiananmen Square set the fashion. The Burmese regime combines the less attractive characteristics of the Chinese government at its most bully-boy and a pseudo-fascist Latin American dictatorship.

The reason I turned down the invitation to have a free trip and write this piece was partly honourable (to avoid encouraging the Burmese regime) and partly cowardly (to avoid getting anywhere where the Burmese regime, who might have read what I had written about them, could give me a hard time). But the one thing, more than anything else, that convinced me I should boycott the place was a chance encounter last year with someone from Burma who had lived at Pagan.

Pagan (pronounced Pa-GARN) is the most amazing place I have ever seen. It was, once, a flourishing medieval city on a plain beside the Irrawaddy River, full of shops, temples, palaces and houses. Centuries ago, everything was destroyed except the temples, leaving a gigantic chess board of brick and stone pyramids, stretching for miles between the river and the hills.

Here and there among the temples small villages formed, where farmers and merchants crept back into the deserted city to set up their small colonies. I can remember climbing the main pagoda in the village of Pagan to survey the great plain as the sun came up over Burma, and being equally surprised by the sight and by the sounds. I had expected the world at the top of a pagoda to be tranquil, but I had forgotten that sound travels well upwards, and up there on top of the temple I could hear the whole village beneath me - the dogs, the shouts, the creaking of cart wheels, the singing, the crackling of fire. The effect of a lived-in monument was heady.

Not any more, said my contact from Pagan. To keep it clean and pure for the tourist trade, that village has been swept away. It has vanished. The inhabitants have been forcibly moved away from their riverside home to a dusty desert miles away and left to rot. Things have been done to these people as bad as anything in Bosnia, the difference in Burma being that the government is doing it to its own people. Not ethnic cleansing but touristic cleansing.

All this was unpleasantly confirmed for me on Radio 4 last week, on the excellent programme called Costing the Earth, in which the programme's correspondent revealed that this clearance is now going on in Rangoon itself, where whole areas are being knocked down to make room for four- star hotels, and the people are being thrown out of town. Gangs of slave labour are being forced to clean out the vast moat of the Palace of Mandalay.

There was a time when the Burmese discouraged tourism, but now they have discovered the quick profits to be made from it, as they previously discovered the profits to be made from flogging off their jade, teak and oil. So the thugs in charge of Burma have proclaimed that this should be "Visit Burma Year" and have started tossing out blandishments to travel firms, which led, I suppose, to my invitation to visit.

The ironic thing is that the programme we made in 1987, The Burma Road, told the grim story of how the Chinese used slavery and forced labour to build the Second World War supply route into China. Today, the Burmese government is doing the same thing to its own people.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the toast - make 1996 "Avoid Burma Year".