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Burma's allure places travelers in ethical dilemma

Activists say tourist dollars support the military junta, but many Burmese say they need the income.

By Danna HarmanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 28, 2008

Waiting for a Fare: A horse-cart driver in the ancient city of Bagan, Burma, waited recently for what has become a rare sight there these days: tourists.

Danna Harman

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Inle Lake, Burma

Out of the motorized canoe, through a bamboo grove, up wooden stairs to the jungle, and there they are – thousands of stupas and shrines of Indein Village, their pinnacles rising into a cloudless sky.

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A decade ago, when visa restrictions to Burma (Myanmar) were relaxed and the government had launched its "Visit Myanmar" campaign, the site, on the banks of Inle Lake, was open to foreigners. It's a stunning spot. But also an empty one, devoid of tourists.

Visiting Burma is not for the casual sightseer. The electricity, healthcare, and communications systems are abysmal. Land mines remain in some spots and ethnic fighting in others. There's also the recent violent crackdown on Buddhist monks and their supporters.

But for those willing to overlook all this to experience Burma's charm, coming here also presents an ethical dilemma: Do you heed human rights activists' pleas to stay away to keep tourist dollars from a military junta's coffers or listen to some Burmese who say that income is a vital source for the country's impoverished.

Even Lonely Planet, one of the few tour books that puts out a guide to the country, begins the edition with a lengthy chapter titled: "Should You Go?" And many have decided not to.

Since September 2007 street demonstrations against the government that turned deadly, tourism has gone down 40 percent, the Ministry of Tourism admitted last month. But it's not as if the number of visitors was tremendous before the protests. According to the government-run Central Statistical Organization, 349,877 tourists came to Burma in 2006, the lowest number to visit any country in the region. Next-door neighbor Thailand, by way of comparison, received 12 million.

The comments of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi have had a profound impact on tourists. In 1996, she told would-be visitors to "stay away."

"Tourism to Burma is helping to prolong the life of one of the most brutal and destructive regimes in the world," Ms. Suu Kyi said, sinking the government's entire "Visit Myanmar" strategy with a gentle fell swoop. "Visiting now is tantamount to condoning the regime.... We would like to see that these things are conditional on genuine progress towards democratization."

In the intervening years, with democratization seemingly low on the junta's list of priorities, Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest, has neither retracted nor updated this stand.

There is no doubt, as pro-boycott activists point out, that travel to Burma benefits the junta – through various taxes, entry and exit visas, tickets into archaeological sites, and via a broad web of government-owned hotels, airlines, and businesses.

In addition, tourism brings with it a certain normalization of the dire situation and legitimization of the brutal regime. Britain's biggest labor group, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has urged the publishers of the Lonely Planet guidebook to drop its Burma edition, saying it encouraged people to visit a country they might otherwise avoid.

"We want to see the travel industry drop Burma from their list of destinations, and taking the Lonely Planet guidebook off the shelves would help enormously," TUC General-Secretary Brendan Barber said in a statement.

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