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TRAVEL: The Burma Debate (Weekend A
- Subject: TRAVEL: The Burma Debate (Weekend A
- From: drunoo@xxxxxxxxxxxx
- Date: Tue, 21 Jan 1997 12:27:00
Subject: TRAVEL: The Burma Debate (Weekend Australian 18/1/97)
THE WEEKEND AUSTRALIANS REVIEW JANUARY 18-19, 1997.
TRAVEL: THE BURMA DEBATE
Report by Susan Kurosawa and Mary Rose Trainor
TREAD THE WORLD CAREFULLY: Most travellers are aware of obvious taboos cuch
as AIDS, child prostitution and buying ivory, but there are many other that
simply don't spring to mind. Particularly the Third World countries, the
demands of tourism perpetuate much of the damage to wildlife and the
environment and can even contribute to continued human rights abuses.
For example, tourists don't think twice about having a photo taken with a
wild animal, be it a baby gibbon in Phuket or a dancing bear in India. Most
don't question how the animal got there: the gibbon and its mother have
probably been shot down from trees and there are many casualities before a
live and uninjured animal is captured to "perform"; dancing bears have
holes drilled through their skulls and a chain passed through to the nose.
They are taught to "dance" on red-hot surface.
There are many instances where we should ask questions: Does the wood used
in a carbing come from a rare or endangered tree ? is the carpet made by
child labour ? Have local people been displaced to build that golf course ?
We can all become responsible tourists by thinking through the consequences
of our actions and resisting the urge to believe that as just one
individual, what we do doesn't matter -- it does. There are many
organisations that provide information on travelling with a conscience.
Among them: Amnesty International, the Australian Council for Overseas Aid,
Community Aid Abroad (which operates One World Tours and the Worldwide Fund
One recently formed group, the Responsible Tourism Network, is made up of
people in the tourism Industry plus travellers concerned about the impact
of tourism, particularly in developing countries. To join the network, to
obtain a copy of its publication Travel Wise and Be Welcome or to receive
information on Community Aid Abroad tours, write to Box 34, Rundle Mall,
Adelaide 5000 or phone (08)8232 2727.
TO GO OR NOT TO GO. That's the question travel wholesalers and tourists are
being forced to address as Visit Myanmar Year, a tourism fest being staged
by Burma's military Government, gets into full swing. This fabled land of
golden pagodas and veiled valleys holds obvious appeal for Australian
travellers who've done mainstrem Asai and are looking for something
undiscovered. But should travel packagers be offering holidays to Burma
without addressing the issue of human rights ? And should tourists be
buying these products with no concern for the stay-away directive of
Burma's opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi ?
the country is run by a cabal of military generals, the State Law and Order
Restoration Council, which came to power in 1988, changed the country's
name to Myanmar and refused to recognise the overwhelming electoral victory
in 1990 of the National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Peace Prize
winner Suu Kyi. Human rights abuses in the SLORC-run State are on a scale
that insiders say is unparalleled.
As with many other Asian nations, tourism is Burma's fastest-growing
industry and a prime source of foreign currency. It's not surprising that,
following their neighbouring nations' successful examples, the SLORC
devised a special campaign for 1996-97, Visit Myanmar Year, to attract more
Aid agencies have evidence that to ready the country for VMY, forced
civilian laobur has been used to fast-track certain projects, involving
clearing land and villages for five-star hotels, upgrading airports and
repairing railways and roads. Opening ceremonies for VMY were held on
November 18, an event boycotted by the Australian Ambassador at teh
instruction of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer.
Activists, care agencies and human rights groups are calling for boycotts;
some recommend sanctions for the duration of VMY and others demand complete
tourism and trade blocks until democracy is in place. Suu Kyi has said: "We
think it is too early for either tourists or investment or aid to come
pouring into Burma. We would like to see these things conditional on
genuine progress towards democratisation." Speaking to the international
media about VMY, she has cited incidents of civilians being forced to build
roads and bridges and, in many towns, to replace wooden fences with brick
walls. In some cases citizens are made to build beick houses or, if they
can't afford it, to replace the wooden fronts with brick facades, causing
great hardship. "I doubt that any of those people who have to contribute
labour or who have to spend a lot of money ... really get anything back
from the tourist industry," she says.
Those arguing against tourism say most of the money ends up in SLORC
coffers either directly, through large hotels and government-run agencies,
or indirectly, through taxes and bribes paid by rivate operators. Half the
country's Budget goes to teh military, believed to be the largest armed
force in Asia. Due to the lack of external enemies, it must be presumed
that the weapons bought, through large contracts with China, are for use
A number of Australian tour operators - Peregrine Adventures, Orient
Express Hotels, Intrepid Travel and Classic Oriental Tours -- conduct Burma
tours and have been plagued by demonstrations and hate mail. Others, such
as TRavel Indochina, have been quick to cease Burma tours while STA TRavel
(an agency popular with university students, who from a significant market
for Asia), stopped selling Burma products on the eve of promotions for VMY.
Those Australian operators who run Burma programs claim their tours are set
up to funnel the money into the hands of the people. This is achieved by
using private tour companies, guesthouses and hotels and bending the rules
to ensure that little money, if any, goes to the SLORC. Trevor Lake,
managing director of Classic Oriental Tours, says he has thought long and
hard about the situation but is guided by colleagues in Burma. "Our ground
operator is a small, family-run company, managed bythe daughter, Helen. She
is very vocal about democracy and freedom." says lake. "If it weren't for
us, she would have to work for the Government but she now has freedom and
means of support.
"Helen and all my friends and contacts within Burma, some of whom are NLD
members, are of one opinion. Stopping tourism would not only be futile but
would help perpetuate the political problems ...without tourism, they would
be cut off from the outside world. It would be throwing the people into the
hands of the Government."
Joe Cummings, writer of teh sixth edition of Lonely Planet's Burma
guidebook, has been involved with Burma for 10 years. He claims there is
osme dissension between what has been said by Suu Kyi, who has asked
tourists not to come to Burma, and by the NLD's provisional government in
exile, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma. The latest
edition of the Lonely Planet Burma guidebook quotes an NCGUB statement
saying it is against VMY but feels that tourists who want to see for
themselves and publicise the plight of the Burmese people should come,
taking care to avoid SLORC-run hotels and agencies. Commings says the
Lonely Planet guidebook is written in a way that shows exactly how that can
Based on discussions with local Burmese, Cummings disputes reports of
extensive forced labour. "The only draft labour project that can be
indirectly attributed to tourist promotion was the restoration of the
Mandalay Palace," says cummings.
The use of draft labour was discontinued shortly after foreign visitors to
Mandalay began reporting the phenomenon to the outside world -- though
convict labour was used throughout. Urban beautification projects, which
have also used draft labour, have been undertaken in areas that aren't
visited by tourists as well as those that are. The greatest human rights
abuses take place away from foreign view, though they are becoming more
difficult to hide with the proliferation of independent travellers finding
their way into decreasingly remote corners of the country.
"If Burma closes to tourism, it will fall almost entirely into the hands of
unscrupulous investors who couldn't care less about the ethics of a
totalitarian government, as long as no one from the international community
is around to observe their activities."
Tom Beadle, product manager of Intrepid Travel, shares cummings's view. "We
can see the negatives and appreciate the arguments but staying away
completely is not the solution," he says. "When we take people to Mandalay
Palace moat, we point out that it was built by slave labour. In Bagan [a
historic site from which an entire village was removed in 1990], we talk
about the relocations and we stay at guesthouses in New Bagan rather than
government-run hotels in Old Bagan.
Intrepid, which specialises in South East Asia, would like to see a public
debate on the issue. The company hands out a fact sheet, outlining both
sides of the argument, to anyone considering travelling. In addition,
Beadle says taht at slide nights for potential clients, five minutes are
dedicated to human rights issues.
Jon Marquis, marketing manager of Travel Indochina, has stopped packaging
tours to Burma. "Tourism does offer some benefit." he concedes. "It is a
wonderful country and they do need contact with the outside world but not
at the moment -- the local people don't have control over their own
destiny. I've made a couple of visits to Burmaand, no matter what anyone
claims, you cannot work without being involved with teh Government. It's
just not possible. A tour company may have private directors but someone
else in the company is going to be amember of SLORC -- because it is good
business policy. We've been called hypocritical for stopping tours and are
asked 'What about the sitaution in China or Brazil?' But there is one
fundamental difference -- forced labour. As a tourism company, the
association with that part is ugly .. I've heard some dreadful stories
about the digging of the moat [at Mandalay]. I don't know how may company
can run tours to a country where slave labour is used to beautify the
tourist attractions, it makes me sick to the stomach."
Terrell Oung is the national coordinator of the Australia Burma Council, an
umbrella organisation that includes most of the pro-democracy groups in
Australia and has been set up to raise awareness. The council says the
SLORC is looking for recognition through foreign investment and tourism.
"VMY is a very sad thing. If it succeeds they [SLORC] can turn around and
say that the world recognises them," says Oung. "The military Government
will get nearly all the money, that money buys hardware. Then they have no
money to improve the infrastructure, so many villagers are forced into
"I heard someone say that they are paid 15 kyat [less than $1]. It is not
true. Even if it were, money is no good to them. They don't need money.
They grow crops or run a chicken farm and then exchange with other
villagers. They've never used money in their lives.
"There are children as young as 12 being forced to work. It is a very sad
thing and I feel very sorry for my people. As long as money comes into the
country, it will be used to oppress the people. Everything is controlled,
one way or another, by the Government."
Oung can't return to Burma without signing a confession saying he regrets
his pro-democracy stance and apologising to the SLORC. "Most probably, I'd
stay in the 'Hotel Moscow' -- prison, that is. It's so called because the
service is so bad," he chuckles. "When toruists go to Burma, SLORC won't
let them see what is going on. They will take them to places that have been
beautified. In Bagan, people were living there for centuries and SLORC
moved them all out in military trucks. They [tourists] won't see these
Teh Australian Council for Overseas Aid has produced a brochure called
Holidays in Burma? that outlines the realities of life under the SLORC.
According to the Burma project administrator, Marc Purcell, ACFOA is not
calling for isolation or the Burmese people forever, just a boycott of VMY.
"The focus is on VMY and the fact that it is premised on human rights
abuses, forced labour and relocation. It is the scale of human rights abuse
that makes it different to other countries in the region." says Purcell.
"The US embassy estamates that at least 3 per cent of GDP is contributed by
civilian forced labour; lots of examples are documented by Amnesty and the
UN Special Rapporteur to Burma."
As for boycotts "hurting the little people," Purcell says it is an ethical
choice and needs to be balanced against the scale of human rights abuses in
the name of tourism, affecting many people who will not see a cent of the
"Suspension of travel during VMY has been called for by Aung San Suu KYi
and workers in the human rights field would hope that this call is
respected by Australian business."
Amnesty International reports that the situation has seriously deteriorated
in the past five months, especially since NLD members attempted to stage a
party congress on September 27. University Road, leading to Suu KYi's home,
where regular weekend rallies had been allowed since her release from house
arrest, remains closed. Amnesty's position is that it neither supports nor
opposes boycotts but Burma co-ordinator Divid Begg says anyone considering
travel to Burma should be well informed before making a decision. Amnesty
recetly launched a campaign to advise travel agents of the situation and
has produced a brochure targeted at potential travellers to Burma.
The challenge, says Begg, is to get it to the people who are considering
"If someone chooses to visit Burma," says Begg, "we ask that they write to
the authorities on their return, outlining their opinions on human rights
"If they choose not to visit, then we ask them to write explaining why they
decided not to travel. Anyone who says this is a soft position and that we
do not oppose travel to Burma is very wrong."
But perhaps the matter will be taken out of the hands of thinking
travellers, with rumbles in Parliament House about cutting diplomaitc ties
and suspending visas. On December 5, the Opposition's spokesman on foreign
affairs, Laurie Brereton, called on the Howard Government to actively
discourage Australian citizens from visiting Burma. "The SLORC, like the
South African government at the time of apartheid, must be treated as a
pariah regime," says Brereton.
The last word should go to Suu Kyi, who spoke just after the launch to VMY
to Sue Arnold of the British newspaper The Observer: "Is it too much to ask
people to stay away just for this year, to register their disapproval of an
oppressive regime? Burma, after all, will always be here."