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Burma: to go or not to go?

The tourism boycott of Burma is a topic that is still under debate and a question that anyone contemplating a trip to the country will have asked themselves. In November 2009 the Free Burma Federation (FBF) staged a demonstration in London protesting against travelling to Burma. The FBF assert that by travelling to Burma tourists are lending support to the cruel military regime; a regime that has used forced labour to construct tourist resorts. They advocate that tourists who do visit Burma are restricted to where they go and whom they meet, and that the junta will use the profits of tourism to fund the already well-endowed army and not the Burmese people.

The tourism boycott for which the FBF campaigns has been widely supported since 1995, when news broke that the junta was using forced labour to ready the country for ‘Visit Myanmar Year’. This came shortly after a requested by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi that tourists not visit the pariah state.

This viewpoint has been widely upheld and Burma has remained off the tourist travel list for many years. Indeed the majority of people I have spoken to whilst travelling through Asia exclaimed that it had not occurred to them to visit Burma, whilst others believed they would be refused a visa. Consequently Burma receives a relatively small number of visitors every year – 260,000 in 2008 – in comparison to neighbouring countries such as Thailand, which receives more that 14 million per year, or Laos, which gets close to two million. Does this then mean that the government has felt under pressure to reform and become a more open and fair society, or has this increased the sense of isolationism experienced by the Burmese people for over a decade?

This year I was fortunate enough to visit distant relatives I have in Burma. Before taking this trip I took into consideration the moral arguments for and against visiting, with much help from the Lonely Planet’s Myanmar (Burma) Travel Guide and websites such as Burma Campaign UK and Voices for Burma. I decided to go, and I am glad I did. Although I stayed for only six days, which was limited to Rangoon and the surrounding area, my experience has led me to believe that the boycott has overlooked the very people it intends to protect, and that perhaps a rethink is needed.

Venturing out into the city of Rangoon we were met by what once must have been a beautiful city with impressive old colonial buildings now sadly dilapidated, crumbling and falling into a state of general disrepair. Unfortunately most buildings we saw in and around Rangoon seem to have met the same fate, except for the houses surrounding Inya Lake. Our driver unsurprisingly informed us that they belong to the government and military officials and are worth in excess of $US1 million.

There are people selling their wares on every street corner and the whole city seems to be like one giant sprawling market; women are shopping and balancing their purchases on weaved baskets on their heads, and young men drink tea on miniature plastic furniture at one of the city’s hundreds of inexpensive and social teashops. It is these ordinary people that a tourist can help.

The Free Burma Federation argue that by travelling to Burma you are helping to finance the corrupt government, when in fact only 0.7 percent of Burma’s GDP is generated by tourism. The FBF also argue that the money spent on tourism does not reach the people, but this is not necessarily true and the ‘responsible’ tourist can make a much more positive impact by spending money in Burma than by bypassing it completely.

It is true that you cannot avoid paying the $US20 visa fee to enter the country but you can also ensure that the local people receive money by spending your kyat on the local markets, and in local restaurants and guesthouses. You can also buy educational tools such as books, pencils and maps and deliver them to a local school yourself. The onus is upon you to spend your money wisely; if you don’t want it all to go the government, it won’t.

Despite this, it is difficult to shun the country’s beautiful sites altogether and I felt that I could not leave Rangoon without visiting the magnificent Shwedagon pagoda. Unfortunately the majority of the $US5 dollar fee no doubt went into the pocket of the military junta, and the FBF would understandably condemn me for this. However the Shwedagon pagoda and indeed the other pagodas of Rangoon are certainly not tourist attractions swarmed with foreigners as you may imagine. In the three or so hours my friend and I spent there, we saw only two other tourists; this is a place for local Burmese people to worship, and they are extremely proud of this glorious building. Just minutes after we arrived we were approached by a young monk with whom we spoke with, exchanged stories and were shown around a little. He explained that he wanted to improve his English and we were more than happy to help him sift through his pocket dictionary and answer his questions.

Perhaps even more importantly than the financial impact you can make as a tourist is the opportunity you provide the people of Burma as a portal of communication. The isolationist policy of the junta government has meant that for many Burmese uncensored news of the world comes only in scraps from illegal radio broadcasts. They are also denied access to most websites and social networking sites that we in the free world take for granted, although this probably effects a very small number of people as most do not have access to a computer.

As a tourist you will be approached by the friendly people of Burma and for those that can speak English you are a highly valued source of information. For instance, waiting for our connecting flight in Singapore, my companion and I were approached by two Burmese men. One of the first things they said to us after discovering that we were from the UK was “thankyou for coming to Myanmar [Burma]”. This seemed to reflect the attitude of many people we were to meet over the course of our trip.

After finding a seat next to us on the plane what followed was what seemed like 500 questions about every subject ranging from family to football (a sport adored by the Burmese). Three hours later, friendship firmly made, we parted at Rangoon with promises to visit the church school they ran later in the week. Not only can you answer the many questions that these warm and friendly people will have for you, but can also act as a medium for them to pass on to you their information. If in turn you can share this with other people back at home you are doing them a great service of communication of which they have no other means of conveying.

During our stay we were approached by a monk at the Sule Pagoda (Rangoon’s famous temple in the middle of a busy roundabout). After also establishing that we were from the UK he began to tell us about how his monastery and home had been practically flattened by cyclone Nargis in 2008, and how the government had not provided any funds to help. The conversation began to attract a lot of attention from passers-by and being very aware that the junta are not above sending spies to keep an eye out for tourists engaging in political conversations, I sadly had to ask the monk to speak more quietly and attempted to curb our conversation to more neutral grounds.

Retrospectively this was a frustrating situation: I was too scared for both myself and the monk to allow him to tell his story and vent the anger which had so clearly built up within him. But it is not only on the streets that one feels the junta’s watchful eye: when crossing the Rangoon river by public ferry to Dallah, a delta region hit by the cyclone in 2008, we first had to be granted permission from the government-run Ministry Travels and Tours. We were required to write a letter asking for permission to cross to Dallah, vowing to return the same day and not to engage in any political discussions of any type. This is another reason I believe tourism can benefit Burma: if more people visited the country it would be more difficult to place tourists under surveillance. You would not be just one of a handful of people visiting Burma’s beautiful sites, and you, unlike I, could listen to their stories and pass them on for the world to know their anguish.

To visit Burma as a tourist is to allow the plight of the Burmese people into your consciousness. True, as the FBF advocate you are restricted in the places you visit and the people you meet but you are still overwhelmed by a sense of suppression and a forgotten society, one in which no one is able to advance above the ceiling tiled above them by a corrupt and brutal government. After the experience of my visit it seems to me that you are one of two things in Burma; you are poor and you live peacefully under the watchful eye of the junta, or you acquire enough money to pay the government to allow you to live above the ceiling, but not so much that you can surpass them in wealth or power.

This was confirmed to me after we were reunited with our two new friends from Singapore airport. They explained to us that owning a very old, rusting car, usually without handles, seats and sometimes windows, in Burma costs around $US30,000  because of government taxes. Similarly, owning a mobile phone costs around $US1,000 – one can assume that part of these costs go towards the phone tapping and monitoring that no doubt occurs. The said men ran a school just outside of Rangoon which we were delighted to visit. To build this school, to build a better Burma, they first had to build a building for a government official. This is Burma; this is how it works.

So how does it change? Sanctions do not seem to have worked. We as responsible tourists may hold the key to opening the country up. By going to Burma we are not necessarily condoning the government. We can make at least a small positive financial impact to the people who need it, and additionally if we can share our stories with others we can increase the awareness of people to the plight of the Burmese people and prevent the government from hiding their mistreatment of the nation behind the wall of isolation that the tourism boycott has helped to create.