Tuesday, December 16, 2008

To Visit or Not to Visit, or a Better Question.

Most charitable organizations and resistance groups are asking tourists to boycott Burma (Myanmar), but some others believe that doing so is not a good idea. Those with the former view state that tourism directly benefits the regime, while the latter believes that to visit Burma allows the people to have an important interaction with other people. If you are interested in looking into the debate, I can recommend a simple google search as a good way to start.
Andrew Boncombe, in The Independant wrote an excellent article. For your viewing pleasure, I'm going to summarize some of the arguments made by various people that Mr. Boncombe asked on the issue.
Arguments For:
Derek Tonkin, Chairman Network Myanmar

“The hostility shown by the military regime in Burma to immediate and generous Western offers of assistance...has shocked many people... and has lead to allegations ranging from xenophobia to inhumanity... 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."
“...discouragement of travel and tourism to Burma by most EU countries, ...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’... she has acknowledged that some might have good reason to visit her country as “responsible tourists”.
"...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."
“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."
-- Craig's notes:
Indeed, they do seem to crave it. I entered on an afternoon pass (leave passport with the police, slip across and be out by sundown...no fee) and couldn't believe the number of people who smiled at me, stopped to talk and just said hi. The beggar kids were not in the least bit aggressive and seeing my silly face brought instant smiles. I was struck by the racial diversity of the city and the feeling that everyone is just trying to get by. No paved roads when I was there...very few motorized vehicles, and some very lovely people. I dropped in, ate some delicious food (Burmese cuisine tastes more Indo than Chinese), had a beer or two. Took a picture with an old man who seemed so happy to see my big nose, and like a movie star slipped back across the border. A bit muddier, a little tipsy but feeling very confident that the regime didn't get a penny from me but a few worn down local businesses made a killing.

Arguments Against:
(think I better give her argument in full as I seem to have already biased everything by my personal account above)
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 also offered a rebutal to the claims that they are profiting on the backs of the Burmese people. Their main argument was that people make the choice to go on their own and that they only buy a guidebook if they are already going to go.
So, I suppose my position on this is that a person who wants to go and who doesn't support the rape of six year old children (and yes, that really does happen) should exercise great caution to not allow the junta to profit from the visit. Breaking a few government facilities might be a way to offset any visa fees, but I'd absolutely never advocate anything illegal. So, I'd say research it, make sure your hotel is independantly owned, and go with kindness in your heart. Talk to people, don't just be a cultural pirate.

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