Archive for the ‘burma’ Category

on burma

May 29, 2009

Yesterday we went to the edge of the Moei River, which is the border between northern Thailand and Burma.

There is a lot of buzz on the banana pancake trail about Burma being the “new” Laos – a place worth rushing to now before the masses arrive.

We aren’t going to Burma and for us, the answer to “Why not?” is pretty simple. The pro-democracy movement has long called for a boycott of foreign tourists entering Burma, arguing that to do so legitimises the junta and provides valuable US dollars to the military. The largest member of the pro-democracy movement is the National League for Democracy led by the Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

We’ve met and had a few chats with tourists who’ve visited Burma. We always ask (politely – honest!) how they justify breaking the travel boycott. Answers range from staggering ignorance to a standard set of justifications: the presence of international tourists will help prevent human rights abuses; isolating the Burmese from the international community will only strengthen the junta’s ability to rule; a careful traveller can spend most of their money outside of military-controlled enterprises; and a widely generalised, post-factum observation that “most of the people seemed happy for us to be there.”

We think the most powerful answer comes from Aung San Su Kyi herself:

“Burmese people know their own problems better than anyone else. They know what they want – they want democracy – and many have died for it. To suggest that there’s anything new that tourists can teach the people of Burma about their own situation is not simply patronising – it’s also racist.”

In their wildly popular title “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring”, Lonely Planet acknowledges the boycott in a section of boxed text entitled “Should you go?” At least the question is raised but after mounting most of the defences mentioned above, their conclusion is that “with oil and gas, minerals, heroin, timber and other resources to draw on… tourism is pretty much loose change to the generals, but not to people trying their hardest to survive.” Curiously enough, the author of the Burma chapter is the only author not listed in the front of the guidebook – make of that what you will. Even more disappointingly, Lonely Planet fails to give the issues any coverage in their single volume Thailand edition, where visa renewal runs to Burma (via Mae Sot, where we are currently) are detailed – in our opinion, probably the worst sort of “tourism” that could be encouraged, providing easy money for the generals while totally bypassing any of the possible benefits to local people. Hopefully this practice might decrease in popularity due to the Thai government recently changing the length of visas obtainable at land border crossings from 30 to 15 days. The Lonely Planet website and Myanmar guidebook are marginally more measured in their approach but of course, the very act of publishing a guidebook encourages tourism and for this, many in the pro-democracy movement have called for a boycott of Lonely Planet.

For us, it comes to this: we would dearly love to go and although we don’t agree with all aspects of the boycott, we’re not prepared to say we know better than people who have devoted and, all too often, given their lives to the struggle for democracy in Burma. Admittedly, there are very few Asian countries that present no ethically grey areas when it comes to deciding whether to visit them or not, but the line has to be drawn somewhere and we have chosen to draw it at Burma. It’s a tragedy that when Thailand and India are undoubtedly the two giants of Asian tourism, their sandwiched neighbour still labours under such immense difficulty – a free Burma would no doubt give them a run for their money.

A detailed summary of the issues and Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments can be found at Tourism Concern.