Burma's allure places travelers in ethical dilemma
Activists say tourist dollars support the military junta, but many Burmese say they need the income.
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"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."Skip to next paragraph
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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."