The Forbidden Route?

Most human rights activists agree that tourism in Burma is “a difficult question.”

By Patricia W. Elliott

November 2006

When I travelled around Burma in 1995, I was mostly immersed in research work. I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t mention there were times of simple enjoyment. Burma is a special land, blessed with abundant natural beauty, tantalizing cuisine, beautiful art and architecture, and a highly diverse mix of cultures and traditions. In any other country of the world, it would be a tourist’s dream. This fact hasn’t escaped the attention of the country’s ruling junta, which has ruled Burma’s people with an iron fist since 1962. During my sojourn, the entire country was being made ready for “Visit Myanmar 1996.” After 40 years of self-imposed isolation, the regime planned to make over the country with a new name and a new image of openness to the world. Tourism was their vehicle. And “Visit Myanmar” was the coming-out party.

It worked. Between 1995 and 2003, the number of tourists entering Burma rose from 170,000 visitors to 365,000, the majority on package tours. The number of Canadian visitors arriving by air more than doubled, from 818 to 1,973. Tourist numbers have continued to rise exponentially, topping 660,000 in 2005, as word of pristine beaches, misty mountain trails and bargain-filled markets spread. Doubtless, each and every one of the travellers enjoyed a memorable, enriching experience. But what about the people of Burma? Did they benefit economically or socially from the influx of visitors?

“Burma is one of the most difficult and contested subjects in tourism,” says Justin Francis, co-founder of responsibletravel.com, an Internet travel agency based in the UK. On the one hand, tourism brings income and international exposure to Burma’s struggling citizens. On the other hand, tourists risk normalizing and strengthening one of the world’s most brutal military regimes, especially as many tourist services, like hotels and museums, are directly owned by the military. Forced labour and the relocation of whole villages to make places look more pristine are parts of the picture that tourists don’t see, Francis cautions.

I can attest to that. I witnessed the “Visit Myanmar” preparations, including the widening of the Rangoon-Mandalay highway in 1995. Each family along the road was expected to provide one conscript. Women, children, and the elderly formed an unbroken chain that stretched the entire 696 kilometres. Their job was to crush rocks with tiny picks, under the watch of guards. I also witnessed the anguish of small business owners who had been ordered to build a second storey on their shop-house, at their own expense, to make the main street in their small town look more “modern” for foreign visitors. I saw prisoners hand-dredging and cleaning the moat around King Thibaw’s palace, their ankles shackled together. They passed little tin pails of mud up the line endlessly, all day, in blazing heat. Inside the palace’s impressive red walls was one of Burma’s most infamous prisons. To me it seemed a perfect analogy for the country: nice on the outside, hell on the inside. The thought of tourists admiring those walls left a bitter taste in my mouth.

That same year, democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, held under house arrest, asked tourists to stay away until democracy is restored. In 1999 she reiterated her request, saying the generals “seem to look on the influx of tourism as proof that their actions are accepted by the world.”

Justin Francis takes her at her word: “I’ve no doubt Burma is stunning. I would love to go. But human rights would need to improve significantly.”

“Responsible travel is to tourism what organic is to food,” he explains, outlining the thinking behind his travel agency. All travel has both negative and positive impacts; even the most eco-friendly backpack trek has a negative side, if airplane travel is used to arrive at the destination. The trick, says Francis, is to offer tours that are pre-screened to ensure visits produce local economic benefits with minimal negative impact.

Francis became interested in responsible travel after a year of wandering in Africa. “I saw how local people depended on tourism. I saw the need,” he says. His first investor was Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop. Today his company offers tours in 140 countries. But not Burma.

“We offer [tours to] countries that are at best dubious in their human rights records. But after much thought, we decided that Burma was a special case,” Francis says. Aung San Suu Kyi’s request is just one reason. Both the British government and the EU have urged people not to go. Similar policies were enacted against South Africa to help end Apartheid, Francis points out. Respecting the boycott helps tourism become an agent of change.

“I’ve no doubt that if we marketed Burma to tourists it would be incredibly popular. People crave authenticity and unspoiled places. I’ve no doubt there’s money to be made. But the majority of tourism agencies in Britain have chosen not to market Burma,” he says. This includes not just eco-friendly, alternative-type agencies, but mainstream travel companies. According to Francis, the main reason the boycott is widely upheld in Britain is because of lobbying efforts by the Free Burma Coalition, and a blacklist published by Burma Campaign UK that names agencies dealing in Burma tours.

But even among pro-democracy organizations, there isn’t a consensus on the question. Voices for Burma, for example, encourages low-key, independent exploration of Burma as a way to engage and support ordinary citizens. “We propose tourists spend their days on local transport, visiting teashops, talking and eating with the local people. This has far more wide-reaching consequences of cultural exchange and open dialogue, than snap-happy tourists doing the mainstream tour of monuments,” says Cherie McCosker, Voices for Burma co-director.

McCosker, who lives in Australia, joined Voices in 2004 after a volunteer stint with refugees on the Thai-Burma border. “Up until that point, I hadn’t really thought about the tourism debate and generally bought the ‘don’t go’ line,” she recalls. “When I started exploring the debate further, I realized that tourism in Burma isn’t black and white, and instead there is a lot of potential for improving the welfare and rights of Burmese through ethical tourism.”

“I feel that if tourists go to Burma, understand first-hand the plight and problems, and can personalize the cause with real people, then perhaps the tourist will be more likely to go home and tell their friends, or write to their government.”

It is a compelling argument, supported by many backpackers who frequent Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree on-line discussion group. “The Burmese are very interested in talking to foreigners and are very curious about what things are like in other countries. While I was in Myanmar I met students who wanted to talk about such things as freedom of expression and freedom of the press. They wanted to know how these things are in my country and of course I was happy to tell them about it,” writes “Timoluege.”

My own sense is that Burma’s people already know quite a lot about these things. They built a democratic government before the coup, and have since developed and defended an incredibly strong pro-democracy movement in the face of vicious oppression. I’m reminded of Aung San Suu Kyi’s 1999 statement: “To suggest that there’s anything new that tourists can teach the people of Burma about their own situation is not simply patronizing—-it’s also racist.” But, Burma being what it is, this is the last opportunity we’ve had to hear her speak on the subject of tourism.

And democracy being what it is, we shouldn’t just wait in limbo for another pronouncement, says Sao Harn Yawnghwe, director of the EuroBurma office, an organization that channels support to the pro-democracy movement. Yawnghwe’s hometown, nestled on the shore of placid Inle Lake, is one of Burma’s biggest tourist draws. Yet while thousands of happy tourists boat about the lake, trailing their fingers in the silken waters, Yawnghwe can only imagine how his homeland looks today. He’s been living in exile since 1963.

Speaking for himself, he finds tourism “a difficult question.” He knows people inside Burma are desperate for outside contact and the money tourists spend. Nowadays, individuals are allowed to own guesthouses and tour companies, so not all the money goes directly to the military, as it did in the past, he says. Speaking as EuroBurma director, however, it’s more difficult to stake a clear position.

“In 1995, the military was trying to use tourism to raise money. At that time, Aung San Suu Kyi said to tourists, don’t come now, come later. In 1995 the boycott made sense, but conditions are changing. And because of lack of access to Aung San Suu Kyi, we can’t get her take on it today. Tourism might not be a bad thing today, but I can’t say because I don’t know what she thinks.”

Without guidance from above, people need to develop their own forms of resistance and survival, Yawnghwe says. “Through low-level resistance, people can feel they can do something about their own situation. I encourage self-help activities, not just waiting for Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy to tell them what to do.”

This low-level resistance may include making contact with foreign visitors. Yawnghwe notes that the pro-democracy movement has at times been able to tap into independent travellers as supporters and helpers. “A lot of activists became active because they went. We’d be cutting ourselves off from this if no one went,” he says. “So I’m of two minds: not mass tourism, but backpackers and eco-tourists. The Military Intelligence Service can’t keep track of them all, so I would say they should go. Students and young people can make a difference.”

I wonder if backpackers always make a positive difference, though. Some years ago I met a charming Burmese fellow in a remote village. The village had once been a cosmopolitan, bustling crossroads, but since the coup the only outside visitors had been myself and some French Buddhists who’d studied at the local monastery a few years earlier. Above all, my acquaintance was dying for something new to read. After I returned to Thailand I bought him a book he wanted, went down to Khao San Road, and gave the book and a hand-drawn map to a Belgian backpacker. He returned not only with a report of a successful delivery, but also with tales of the beauty and hospitality of the village. He wrote about it on the Internet, and many more have followed his steps since then. As a result, the whole village has doubtless enjoyed plenty more books, foreign dollars, outside news and jobs. But the story has a sad ending: last year, my charming friend was arrested and sentenced to 13 years in prison for two counts of “denigrating the tourism act.” The first count was for giving tours to backpackers for $1 USD. The second count related to some incautious words a tourist wrote in the guest book at the monastery. So it’s not always the case that backpacker-style tourism unleashes more good than harm.

When I tell this story to Yawnghwe, however, he points out that if the fellow was outspoken, he must have known the risks, and the authorities would have found a reason to jail him. “The words of a tourist are just an excuse to arrest him.”

He relates the story to the larger picture. While tourists agonize over which guesthouse is “okay” to spend their money at, a much deeper struggle for survival is going on all around them. The junta is tough, says Yawnghwe, and tourism is only on their radar when it’s convenient.

“The military can survive with or without a tourism ban. The question is how to keep the people going,” he says, speaking of Burma’s beleaguered, impoverished population. A few tourist dollars and some outside contact may help keep a person strong and confident enough to defy the regime in other ways. Yawnghwe’s words remind me that in the Burmese struggle for freedom there are bigger battles being fought, in which tourists’ ethical dilemmas play just one small role.

As for myself, I doubt I’ll return to Burma anytime soon, unless it’s to report on the celebration of a democratic victory. And at the very least, I hope people who do go to Burma go with good hearts, good intentions, and good sense.

Patricia W. Elliott is a former news reporter for the Bangkok Post and the author of The White Umbrella: A Woman’s Struggle for Freedom in Burma (Friends Books, 2006). She teaches journalism at the University of Regina.

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