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Myanmar: to visit or not to visit,

Subject: Myanmar: to visit or not to visit, from Japan Times

The Japan Times
October 13, 1996

Myanmar: to Visit or Not to Visit

Visit Myanmar Year officially kicks off this month, but Aung San Suu Kyi,
the country's leading dissident, doesn't want visitors. Should we stay or
should we go?=20

Los Angeles Times

RANGOON - If you're one who believes in visiting Myanmar, the former Burma,
you may or may not be up - to - date on the fatal repression, the global
heroin trade and the strange stranded - in - the - '50s atmosphere here. But
either way, your most visible enticement to this Southeast Asia country is
probably the tower that stands gleaming on a hill above Rangoon.=20

The 100-meter-high spire of the Shwedagon Pagoda is layered with tons of
gold and thousands of jewels, a 76 carat diamond on top, surrounded by a
riot of red and yellow paint, dragons and elephants in effigy, steeply
pitched ornament - heavy roofs and smoldering incense.=20

>From dawn to dusk, workaday Myanmarese and red - robed monks circle the
2,500 - year - old site, their faces cooled and protected from the sun's
rays by a yellowish paste that is a derivative of tree bark. They nod to
tourists, acquiesce to photos, kneel to meditate, reach to place a drooping
blossom in a cup beneath a holy figure.=20

The British author W. Somerset Maugham wrote that the pagoda stood out "like
a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul. "=20

One can take it as a symbol of Myanmarese spiritual resilience despite
tyranny and poverty, as many American visitors do, or one can take it merely
as a pretty picture, as Myanmar's nonelected military junta, the State Law
and Order  Restoration Council, or SLORC, would probably prefer.=20

In any event, the pagoda sells well. And the SLORC, eager to silence human
rights activists calling for a tourism boycott of the country, is looking
for more customers.=20

Over the past year, even as political pressures have led several
international corporations to scale back their investment, Myanmar's leaders
have stepped up a ferocious campaign to lure Western tourists - and their
hard currency. That campaign is accelerating this month with the official
start of "Visit Myanmar Year."=20

The tourism campaign may pique the interest of adventurers who have heard of
Myanmar as a gorgeous, exotic land that once, along with India, was a colony
of the British and has been isolated for more than 30 years. But the case of
Myanmar raises a nagging question for modern-day travelers Is my vacation a
political act?=20

Many travelers, and most of those who make their living from tourism, argue
that a tourist can't be blamed for all doings in their destinations, or no
one would ever leave home.=20

Under that philosophy, crossing borders may put some money in the pockets of
objectionable leaders but stands as a chance to communicate the ideals of
democracy and perhaps spread some wealth among strangers living in need.=20

Visiting Myanmar "is not appropriate," says Kyaw Tint, who fled the country
in 1985 and now lives in Alhambra, Calif.=20

"All the facilities - the roads, the hotels and almost all the
infrastructure used by tourists=97are built by forced labor or foreign
workers," he says.=20

"Almost all of these hotels where tourists are going to stay are owned by
the military or their families. If you go, the military is going to get
profits. And if they have more money, they are going to make more=
 oppression. "=20

Yet by some measures, the "Visit Myanmar" campaign is a success already.=20

Several large, upscale American travel companies have begun bringing
travelers into Myanmar, including Abercrombie & Kent International,
Classical Cruises & Tours, Geographic Expeditions, Butterfield & Robinson,
Mountain Travel-Sobek and Radisson-Seven Seas Cruises. Stressing that they
put as little money as possible into the government's pockets, those
companies report a small but growing number of bookings from adventurous
American travelers.=20

Myanmarese government officials say tourist arrivals have grown to more than
60,000 in 1994 from fewer than 10,000 in 1989 - the year after troops opened
fire in the streets of Rangoon, killing an estimated 3,000 pro - democracy
demonstrators and bystanders.=20
Those travelers who reach Myanmar find a world unto itself.=20

As tourists arrive on a sunny Saturday outside the monstrous concrete red
and yellow Karaweik restaurant, designed to resemble a hulking royal barge
on Rangoon's Kandawgyi Lake, a mysterious fellow appears, wearing a Tourism
Department badge and wielding a video camera. He tapes the foreigners, then

On a muggy afternoon in the rural outskirts of Rangoon, amid the buzz of
mosquitoes and the smell of cows and chickens, a group of foreigners gets
off a bus, expecting a glass factory but finding instead a sort of junkyard
path strewn with dust-coated glassware from years past.=20

Inside a broad barn, they find a crew of shyly smiling workers standing in
the blasting heat of a furnace; prodding, turning and blowing orange ingots
of molten glass.=20

The cooled, hardened results of their work are spread on a table, including
dozens of egg-size art pieces, twinkling with blue and green hues and
suspended bubbles. These nuggets are the kind one finds in the elegantly
lighted shop windows of upscale American resorts for $40 apiece.=20

"A year ago, the price was about 5 cents each," proprietor Myat - Aywe
confesses in halting English. Now that more foreigners have come, he says,
"it's 50 cents. Half a dollar. Still not too high."=20

The most affluent visitors stay at the teak - lined, 95 - year - old, $300 -
a - night Strand Hotel, once the refuge of old colonials, now restored and
run by the Amanresorts luxury chain.=20

Others choose a cruise on a newly refurbished 128 - berth luxury ship, The
Road to Mandalay, that since December has plied the Irrawaddy River between
Mandalay and Pagan under the operation of Orient - Express Hotels. With two
cruises weekly scheduled from September through May, and prices beginning at
$1,500 per person for a three-night cruise, the company forecasts about
4,000 passengers this year.=20

"Generally, Myanmar people are quite content," a government tour guide
announces to a busload of Americans as they head toward the waterfront.=20

One American asks if the bus can make a detour past the home of Aung San Suu
Kyi, the leader of anti - government dissenters. The guide and driver ignore
the request. Another American asks how many people died in the 1988 unrest.=

"Nobody knows," says the guide.=20

Alistair Ballantine, president of Abercrombie & Kent, an American travel
company that brings high - end tours into the country, has suggested that
"being exposed to the political aspects of day - to day life in Myanmar . .
 . turns ordinary travelers into advocates for a cause. They return home as
goodwill ambassadors, bringing pressure to bear on their own governments to
facilitate change."=20

But Carol Richards, an independent anthropologist who is cofounder of the
Santa Monica - based Burma Forum, asserts that there really is no free
communication between the Myanmarese and tourists because "it's very risky
for a common person to speak with foreigners, and many tourists don't
realize that."=20

In an armchair tour of Myanmar's unromantic realities, the first stop would
be just a few kilometers northwest of the Shwedagon Pagoda, on University

There, under constant surveillance stands the home of Suu Kyi, 51, winner of=
the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. In that home she endured house arrest for six
years. Since her formal release in 1995, Suu Kyi has delivered regular
anti-SLORC speeches here, sometimes with American tourists in her front-yard

But in recent interviews, she has denounced casual tourism to her country as
"tantamount to supporting authoritarianism in Burma" and thrown her support
behind the effort - much of it circulating around the world via the Internet
- to keep tourists away during Visit Myanmar Year.=20

Next stop on the anti - itinerary might be the forests along Myanmar's
western and eastern borders. There, poppy-planting drug lords produced an
estimated 220 tons of heroin last year, which the U.S. State Department says
makes Myanmar the world leader in opium and heroin production.=20

The surrender to the SLORC early this year of the person said to have been
the region's most productive drug lord, Khun Sa, has done little to stem the
tide, according to Western drug enforcement officers.=20

Stop three: perhaps a prison somewhere up the Irrawaddy, where SLORC has
jailed two comedians whose crime was making jokes about the government on
Independence Day, Jan. 4. Amnesty International estimates the country's
political prisoners at more than 1,000, which doesn't count most of the 300
dissidents arrested and released in a May crackdown.=20

Following that action, on May 23, the U.S. State Department cited "the
potential for violence" and recommended "that U.S. citizens exercise all due
caution in traveling in Burma and consider curtailing nonessential travel to
Burma for the time being."=20

Still, for a Westerner who sees a benefit to crossing lines, curiosity can
be stronger than repulsion.=20

Along the alleys between Bogyoke Aung San and Anawrahta streets, travelers
browse among booksellers who stack their wares on the sidewalk, the
inventory running to Paul Erdman ("The Crash of '79"), Thomas Hardy ("Tess
of the D'Urbervilles"), a few Tom Clancy offerings and many romances. A
Lands' End catalog is also for sale. English - language books are so prized
that an entire cottage industry has risen in improvising cardboard bindings
to lengthen these volumes' lives.=20

Downtown in the Bogyoke Aung San Market, where locals gather to gossip and
sip tea, visitors wander through a cavernous market area stuffed full of
lacquerware puppets, jewelry of varied quality and cheap T-shirts.
Hand-carved teak picture frames fetch $9.=20

In the dim bar of the Strand Hotel, meanwhile, a Mandalay beer goes for $4.
Rarely filled with more than five or so expatriates and visiting tourists,
the freshly mopped marble floor is often empty of customers and a melancholy
clarinet - guitar - piano trio is at work. With a ceiling fan slowly
circling overhead and colonial ghosts of Maugham and Rudyard Kipling
floating just out of view, the players struggle through "Love Me Tender" and
"Blue Moon," waiting for those Westerners their government wants so badly to