Saturday, February 19, 2005

Burn the barn down if you can't catch the mice

This FBC Posting contains:

1). Tourist boycott benefits no one but China: The Bangkok Post
2). Travel helps areas hit by tsunamis: San Francico Chronicle

Burn the barn down if you can't catch the mice!

Zarni, Free Burma Coalition

This posting contains various pro-travel-to-Burma or Myanmar pieces. I am not bothering even to juxtapose these pieces with anti-travel and -tourism pieces precisely because the pro-travel ban and -boycott pieces depict a broad brushed view of Burma, displaying characteristic preference for hyperboles and exaggerations. In addition, the mainstream media and opposition story line is too well-establisehed and standardized for us to be wasting our time - a variation of Orwellian paradigm of "four legs good, two legs bad."

No one who has the working knowledge of the country would deny that the current de facto government's policies are absurd, counterproductive, and repressive and that paranoia and social pathologies run deep in all sectors of that society, including the ruling class, the cronies, the ruled and the opposition.

But I find it equally distasteful to read wildly off-the-mark assertions and characterizations of my native-country - and tourism (my former profession) - by both overzealous, messianic Western activists and some Burmese political welfarists in exile who are apparently unable to act or think independent of their political and financial patrons. The media's reporting and the mainstream activists' comments on the extent of Tsunami damage to Burma's coastlines and communities is a case in point. And equating the Burmese regime's use of forced civilian labor with slavery is another.

Further, some Western boycott campaigners who have never ever lived in Burma or the Burmese expatriates who have never worked in tourism industry back home do not - and cannot - know how much space there is for the local people to bypass the State's invisible hand in eking out a living. Instead of doing their homework first, these know-it-all boycotters make a typical, groundless claim that "every dollar tourists spend goes to the regime's coffer."

I used to think only authoritarian and autocratic regimes - dare I add born-again crusaders of liberty - are capable of lying with a straight face. I was indeed wrong. In the name of truth, we boycotters butcher, twist, distort, or exaggerate truths - in sound bites, catchy phrases, and you name it. The Western audiences who we have fed information do their part: they spread their versions of blown-out-of-proportion Burma truths.

The Free Burma Coalition built most of these boycott campaigns successfully in the United States and spread the boycott initiatives across the globe. We put into circulation, among activists and citizens, the analogy between South Africa and Burma simply out of a campaign expediency - one of the FBC supporters shadow-wrote an op-ed entitled "Burma as South Africa" to which the retired Reverend Desmond Tutu put his name. The good reverend gave the coinage the air of authenticity. Thus was promoted our boycott campaign.

The boycott campaign was to be a secondary piller of the Burmese freedom movement, when we thought we had one at the height of these boycotts. Now with the movement crippled at all levels and incapable of doing anything other than standing hopelessly by - or crying wolf around the world - as our country is going through a crucial phase, all of a sudden the absurdity - and meaninglessness - of further isolating and punishing the country are being exposed. As a well-known Burmese saying goes, we are "burning down the barn because we could not catch the barn-dwelling mice (that live off our rice)."

Indeed this is the campaign which has ultimately pushed out of work 60,000 Burmese garment factory workers - mostly women and young girls - for nothing, and equally demoralizing, which resulted nothing other than a political culture of political dependency among dissidents both inside Burma and in-exile. By political dependency, I mean a distressing phenomenon wherein many Burmese freedom fighters have relegated themselves to victims and victims' advocates who chronically engage in the display of (Burmese) "human rights pornography," to borrow the late Chao Tzang Yawngwe's apt label, before this or that international or national committee.

Most of us the Burmese, both inside Burma and in exile, who built or supported these international campaigns have long reached a foregone conclusion that the West's boycotting and imposing further sanctions against our country - and/or the activists simply getting excited about the empty rhetoric coming from famous and powerful "crusaders of freedom" - ain't going to get our country anywhere.

Burma's problems are for the Burmese to solve among themselves. They are inter-generational and deeply rooted.

To run, for help, to the West, to the internationally legitimate, but practically crippled United Nations, and to other national communities who have their own problems (and priorities) is to descend further into the abyss of political and psychological dependency. After all no genuinely free and proud people wait for outsiders to come and liberate their nations. They seek their own freedoms through various means, even if that means they have to swim against the theocracy that preaches sanctions and more sanctions as the panacea for our country's ills.


Tourist boycott benefits no one but China


BANGKOK POSTFebruary 16, 2005

The British prime minister's proposal for a tourism boycott of Burma,raised before Britons and the leaders of the international community,is an idea which, if implemented, would do more harm than good to the people of Burma.

The boycott would be intended as a sanction against the military regime's poor human rights record, and to nudge the nation towards democracy. Its effects would be the opposite.Tony Blair justifies his proposal by drawing a parallel with South Africa, where a similar international boycott helped to bring an end to the apartheid era. Evidently, Mr Blair is not aware of the situation in Burma today.

South Africa 20 years ago was an open society with well-established links to the West and other parts of the world. Burma is closed and lacks such contacts. A good example is seen in the recent rumours of a confrontation between the junta's top generals. The only news of the event was through an interview with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand. No news agency reported hostilities within the country.

South Africa was also in effect a Western nation, and sanctions from the West hurt, morally as well as economically. Burma, as Mr Blair might have noticed, is not Western, and indeed rebuffs Western pressure to reform as imperialist. Better fall into the arms of China than capitulate to the imperialist demands of the West.

Tourists to Burma should not be seen as shoring up the regime by bringing in huge amounts of international currency.

Rather, they are natural witnesses to events in that country, the eyes and ears through which the world is able to monitor the kinds of abuse that Tony Blair wants to sanction. Tourists are also the eyes and earsthrough which those locked inside Burma learn of the world beyond their borders.

Tourist visits support the micro-economy at the grassroots level, thus directly supporting the people themselves. In a country with a collapsed banking system, tourists are hardly a major source of incometo the military regime. But the admittedly frail economy of Burma will survive any sanctions the West throws at it.

Why? The answer is simple: China. The more economically and politically isolated from the West Burma becomes, the more intimate and dependent it becomes on its most powerful neighbour.
Currently, there are no border controls between China and Burma. More than at any time in history, Chinese business is buying up land and property in Burma and taking advantage of its natural resources. Wholevillages and towns are turning into de facto Chinese territory.Burma, in short, is turning into another Tibet. Is this what Tony Blair is looking forward to?During the past decade of sanctions from the United States, Canada and the European Union, China has become the great friend of the military junta of Burma. That Western sanctions against a nation which openlyrejects the Western ideals of freedom and democracy, deliberately isolating itself from Western influence, should push it into the embrace of the nation of the Tiananmen massacre is hardly surprising.

Tony Blair's proposal, then, would remove one of the few links remaining between the democratic world and the people of Burma, further damping what hopes for freedom may yet burn, and finally abetting the Tibetisation of Burma.

Mettanando Bhikkhu is a scholar monk educated in the West.

Travel helps areas hit by tsunamis
Thank you for your Jan. 16 article and column ("In the tsunami zone, a vacation can amount to disaster aid," by John Flinn, and "Turning the tide in Asia," by Lonely Planet) about direct aid to tsunami victims and Indian Ocean countries' economies by visiting these regions now -- as tourists. It should help ease the minds of nervous travelers and is probably the most important type of aid that individuals can give.
I'm a Bay Area photographic tour operator with a number of trips planned to the region. We recently had a trip in Burma that began a few days after the tsunami. We lost 20 percent of our small group to panic -- even though we could assure them that we would be no where near the affected area.
I have trips coming up to Vietnam and Indochina, India, Thailand, Burma and Indonesia. Clients are incredulous that we still plan to go, even though none of the specific destinations has sustained damage.
Keep up the good work of educating the travel public to the rewards of real-life travel.
Close-Up Expeditions Oakland +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++I am pleased you published the story on post-tsunami travel to Burma and suggested specifically that people contact New Horizons in Rangoon. I was the director of the Stanford Alumni Travel/Study program for 10 years, during which I organized a number of programs to Burma through Bamboo Tours in San Francisco and New Horizons in Burma.
I know well the many issues that surround travel to Burma and was very proud of the way in which those tour operators are able to ensure that the travel funds are distributed to the needy people with a minimal amount going to the regime. At one time we were subject of a protest by one of the "no travel to Burma" organizations, and we subsequently got them to agree that educated travel was helpful to the people. Travel teaches.
I am also proud of the support that travelers -- both group and individual -- give to the people of the country, which caused me to create and volunteer for Generosity in Action a( Through that mechanism and the local coordination of New Horizons in Rangoon, we have been able to provide wells to villages that previously walked a mile to scoop water from a stagnant reservoir and also to build a school in another community. We are presently working on another school and further wells.
Thank you again for giving the people of Burma another boost and chance to succeed through travel.