Travel to Burma
- From: "Andy" <andy45@xxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Fri, 21 Apr 2006 11:57:59 +0100
The Burma boycott, 10 years on
Bangkok Post 21 April 2006
Rangoon (dpa) - A decade ago, Burma pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu
Kyi boldly called on the world to boycott visiting her homeland.
The strategy, though harmful to the country's people, was meant to
further isolate the ruling military junta and deny them the foreign currency
they needed to remain in power.
Today, the generals remain isolated - but they also remain in power.
Despite their socialist background, the junta eventually caught on to
the ideas of trade and globalization, creating their own mini-business
machines in agriculture, manufacturing and natural resource extraction to
help perpetuate their rule.
A tiny sliver of that machine is tourism, which took off after Burma
declared 1996 as "Visit Burma Year."
The generals followed the lead of Southeast Asian neighbors Vietnam
and Cambodia, two other authoritarian regimes that realized the benefits of
foreign travelers and their cash.
Although Burma's tourism industry remains infantile, it is nonetheless
growing - and undermining claims that the boycott is working.
"I think we should have a strong stance and push Burma to move toward
democracy," says veteran Burma-watcher Chayachoke Chulasiriwongs, a lecturer
at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. "But by boycotting tourism? Well, it
Indeed, in 1995, only 117,000 foreigners traveled to Burma, according
to the Pacific Asia Travel Association, or PATA. This year, more than
260,000 are expected to visit.
That may be because "Visit Burma Year" didn't mention that hundreds of
thousands of people have been displaced and used as forced labour on
tourism-related projects, according to the Burma Campaign U.K., a
pro-democracy and human rights group.
"Tourism to Burma helps sustain one of the most brutal and destructive
regimes in the world," the group claims on its website.
A decade ago, a tourism boycott seemed like a good idea because the
industry was controlled by the government or military-affiliated companies.
Tourists were required to exchange money for government coupons, which could
only be used at government-sanctions facilities.
That's no longer the case. Most of the places in which foreign
tourists can stay and eat are privately owned, both by Burma and
international hotel chains. Travelers can book tours through whomever they
like, shop where they want, eat at local noodle stands and flag down cyclo
drivers on the street.
"Our position is that people should continue to travel to Burma," says
Ken Scott, director of communications of PATA in Bangkok. "We see travel as
an industry that brings benefits to people on the ground."
It's also an industry that allows Burma contact with the outside
world. Unlike fellow pariah state North Korea, where there are massive
restrictions on the few tourists allowed in, visitors to Burma can visit
most parts of the country and interact with local people from all walks of
It's probably the only way to educate Western and Asian visitors to
Burma who have little knowledge of the country and are obviously not reading
the websites of anti-junta groups such as Burma Campaign U.K.
"We want witnesses," says Burma comedian Lu Maw of The Moustache
Brothers comedy troupe in Mandalay. "Tourists are our Trojan Horse."
Boycotts and sanctions are controversial strategies, and there's
widespread debate about whether they even work. In 2003, US President George
W Bush banned Burmese imports to the US after the junta re-arrested Suu Kyi
and allegedly killed as many as 70 of her supporters.
The sanctions cost the junta 356 million dollars in garment sales to
the US in the first year alone. But they also forced factories to close,
throwing tens of thousands of young Burmese women out of work.
Although Burma's neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian
Nations, or ASEAN, are clearly fed up with the junta's behavior, which
reflects badly on them, they have rejected Bush's call to impose their own
trade sanctions. Instead, they continue diplomatic and cultural ties in
hopes the country will open up.
It is already doing so. Despite past attempts by the junta to keep
Burma hermetically sealed, there are now international mobile phone service,
Internet and satellite television dishes connecting the Burmese people to
Asia and the West.
"Outside influences from other cultures can only be a positive thing
as long as the culture in question holds on to their traditional cultural
and religious beliefs," says Immanuel Skinner, a Bangkok-based DJ who
regularly plays in Rangoon. "When [people] become disconnected from the
outside world, they lose who they are, and never know what else exists."
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