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 , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    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.
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    On the road between Mandalay and Bagan, Burma, this reclining Buddha rarely receives visitors as few tourists are coming to this country run by an oppressive military junta.
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    Even though tourist access was opened a decade ago to the stupas of Indein village, on the shores of Inle Lake, it remains a rarely visited archaeological treasure.
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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.

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.

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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.

"People see smiling faces. They visit the wonderful tourism sites – and soon enough they are telling their friends how special Burma is and forgetting what is really going on," admits a local travel agent, acknowledging the dilemma, and speaking anonymously for security reasons. "I always get questions about this from tourists who want to book vacations – and I try and be honest about the pros and cons."

Mark Farmaner, a spokesman for the Britain-based Burma Campaign, is more clear-cut, arguing that nowhere else in the world is there such a direct relationship between human right's abuses and tourism. "Much of the country's tourist infrastructure is developed by the use of forced labor," he stresses, bringing up another aspect of the story. "People have been made to construct roads, airports, and hotels, and thousands more have been forcibly relocated to make way for tourist areas." A 1998 International Labor Organization report backed up that assertion, providing "abundant evidence" of forced labor on tourism projects.

But others say tourist dollars provide income to average Burmese, and that visitors from outside are both an important witness to what is happening and one of the best ways for many locals to get exposure to foreign ideas.

"We make money from tourism. But we don't have any tourists," says Violet Oo, a young woman who sells laquerware cups outside a pagoda in the ancient city of Bagan.

Lu Maw, a member of the famed – and outlawed – antiregime comedy trio, "The Moustache Brothers," believes tourism can be Burma's salvation. "Tourists must come here. It's like Ethiopia – we never knew they were starving there until journalists and visitors saw the hunger with their own eyes," he insists, referring to the 1980s famine in Ethiopia. "If there are no tourists we can't explain to them what is happening."

Even within Suu Kyi's own party, there is debate on the matter. "Our official position toward tourism is the lady's position, but personally I think times have changed," says a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, who spoke anonymously out of respect for the official position. "She made her comments in 1996 at the time most of the hotels and airlines were owned by the government or their cronies. Now, there are lots more private businesses. So I personally believe we need to rethink the stand."

Officially, the US doesn't restrict travel to Burma, but the State Department's information sheet on it does give pause. "Hotel rooms, telephones, and fax machines may be monitored, and personal possessions in hotel rooms may be searched."

At the Sedona hotel in Mandalay, at the peak of high season, the restaurant is empty save for the mandolin players inexplicably plucking out old John Denver favorites. A sole American sits at the bar.

"I got flak for coming here," admits Stan, who didn't want his full name used for security reasons. "But who knows what's best for this country. Also, is it my problem? I enjoy travel. I am not responsible for fixing Burma."

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