Monday, January 03, 2005

Mis-guided Tourism Boycott and Delusions of Moral Superiorty

Quote of the Day: "If you start thinking about not coming here because of the government, youwill have to start thinking about whether to go to China, Laos, Tibet, or eventhe United States.”-
Swiss backpacker Marcel Schonenberger.

“Many Burmese are happy to see foreigners, especially those concerned abouttheir plight, but they also feel unhappy that the money they spend is going tothe regime."
-Debbie Stothard, activist group of Altsean-Burma

This FBC Posting contains:

Economy/Tourism

1). Mystique outweighs morality for Myanmar tourists

Compiler's Remark:

In this posting, I have included a variety of items touching on the variousaspects of Burma. One particular item warrants some comments.On the piece on tourism, it is interesting to see how obviously intelligentindividuals have wildly different views regarding tourism in politicallycontested countries.Take Tibet and Burma, for instance.

Tibet's spiritual leader, HH the Dalai Lama,openly encourages tourists to go to his isolated native land because he viewsinteractions between the Tibetan people and his internationaltourists/travellers positive, generally speaking.

In contrast, Burma'sspiritual leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, asks Westerners and other interestedtravellers NOT to come to Burma until there is freedom and democracy.Then there is this hysterical opposition by foreign activists against travelsin Burma. While the regime in power butchers truths and realities forpropaganda purposes the overzealous outsiders allow their ignorance to dictatetheir public statements, out of their delusional sense of unfounded moralsuperiority.From college sophomore year in 1982 until I left the country in 1988, I workedas a sometime tour guide in Mandalay.

And out of that 6-years experience inthe most isolated period in Burma's post-indepdence history, I know for a factthat NOT every dollar tourists spend in Burma goes to the government. This islogistical and demonstrable issue, aside from the moral or ethical questionsinvolved - if there is any, insofar as the interactions and exchange of smilesand ideas among people across national boundaries and cultures are concerned.There are about 500 ways to ensure that money transactions take place only withlocally owned businesses and self-employed tourist guies. Despite the increasein the number of tourists, the government's wholly or part-owned hotels are tooexpensive or too unattractive for the tourts to stay except for perhaps peoplelike Mick Jaggar.

Those who claim tourist dollars go straight to the regime's coffer evidently donot know what they are talking about.Ignorance fueled by a sense of moral superioty is as dangerous and harmful asarrogance fueled by a sense of superior strength.

As a matter of fact, tourism helps local business as tourists mean work. It gives local people opportunities to interact with international travellers.In my days as a tourist guide in Mandalay the number of tourists in Burmaannually totalled about 36,000.

There are different types of travellers. Educational, recreational, specialinterest tourists, starry-eyed tourists, adventurers, and so on. I know so manysuccess stories of local people - jobs, educational opportunities abroad,lasting friendship, and you name it.

Learning about Burma by reading humanrights reports or watching Burma videos may be a good way to start. But youdon't fall in love with a people or a country by simply reading about them.

You have to experience the country. I would not be here writing these notes if it weren't for those tourists who helpedme get out of the most hermit nation of General Ne Win. For those of us whodid not grow up in the Upper Crust sectors of Rangoon - Golden Valley,Windermere, University Avenue, and so on - there were far fewer life chances interms of further education abroad, decent employment, other opportunities oreven reading materials and exposure to the democratic and developed West.

Tourists who come to our historically and culturally interesting, but highlyisolated land-locked towns and cities serve as mobile, human bridges that spanour starkly different worlds.The ordinary Burmese people need friends who are capable of making their ownintellectual and ethical decisions, not the ones who would be push-over whenconfronted with the self-assigned moral police of overzealous foreignworld-savers.

Our struggle is waged in the name of these ordinary folk. Aside from the fact that both elite and ordinary folk want a free and prosperousBurma, no one or no group has either moral or intellectual monopoly over how toaccomplish that mission. But one thing is certain - it is not possible tobuild - or even sow the seed of - an open socity by further isolating themembers of the targetted society.

To be sure, tourism is not going to produce reforms in Burma, something 2-3generations of civilian and military personnel have failed to accomplish. Wecan't expect outsiders to come and do the job we ourselves - our parents'generation, our generation and the current new generation - are supposed to do.Tourists are not morally obligated to liberate the Burmese. They are there fortheir own purposes. If something positive happens, it happens by default.

Not many sane people in the world are deluded enough to think they can save theworld or they can liberate an entire society out of oppression by repeatedlystating the values of freedom, democracy and human rights.There may be concerns related to tourism on grounds of public health (spread oftransmittable diseases, for instance), conceivable damage to fragile eco-systems and perhaps possibilities of sex tourism. But to picket every tourist and guilt-trip them because they go to politically contested Burma is not only ignorant but misguided and self-defeating, let alone address the potential hazards resultant of the rise in tourism.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++1). Mystique outweighs morality for Myanmar touristsKhaleej TimesMystique outweighs morality for Myanmar tourists(REUTERS)22 December 2004YANGON - Aung San Suu Kyi’s pleas are falling on deaf ears these days. Far fromheeding the Nobel peace laureate’s cry to stay away from military-ruledMyanmar, tourists are flocking to the mystical, isolated Southeast Asian nationin ever-greater numbers.Figures from the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) suggest around 223,000tourists will fly into Yangon this year, the highest total in PATA’s eight-yearrecords and a 10 percent increase on 2003.The totals are still tiny compared to neighbouring Thailand, but the increasecomes despite exhortations from the likes of Suu Kyi and former colonial rulerBritain, which has also slapped sanctions on Yangon’s reclusive generals, notto visit.“Your average traveller these days doesn’t really listen to government traveladvisories. It’s much more a case of ’I’ll make my own mind up, thank you verymuch,’” said PATA managing director John Koldowski.For opposition leader Suu Kyi, still under a long period of house arrest, everytourist dollar spent is another dollar propping up the military regime that hasruled the former Burma under various guises for the past 42 years.The argument, outlined in travel bible The Lonely Planet, is persuasive, and ishammered home by human rights groups such as The Burma Campaign UK inadvertisements showing “Burma” written in blood across pictures of pristinewhite sand beaches.But this is pitted against Myanmar’s ancient pagodas, tracts of unspoilt jungleand an atmosphere of other-worldly, forgotten charm that are an increasinglypowerful draw to everybody from hippy backpackers to big-spending culturevultures.Most visitors have some idea of the political situation, but few are fullyaware of the accusations dissident and human rights groups make against thejunta -- among others, detaining more than 1,300 political prisoners, producinghuge quantities of heroin and using child soldiers.“Some tourists want to see Suu Kyi’s house, but mostly they just want to knowwhere the cheap gem shops are and how to get the train to Mandalay,” Maun, atour guide, told Reuters in the shadow of Yangon’s towering Shwedagon pagoda.“They don’t want to talk about politics.”Outside contactMyanmar’s military government keeps a very tight grip on information, censoringnewspapers and radio, and blocking Internet sites such as Hotmail and Yahoothat might carry news on events inside and outside the country.Some visitors therefore see tourism as a force for good, allowing ordinarypeople access to news and views, which are otherwise unavailable.“For me, coming here was a no-brainer, because I was born and grew up under adictatorship -- Nikolai Ceaucescu’s Romania,” said Radu Polizu, a Romanianfilmmaker now living in New York.“It’s a chance to talk with the people if they want to talk. I’m happy tolisten and pass their thoughts to the outside world,” he said.However, Debbie Stothard of activist group Altsean-Burma says too few visitorscome with such good intentions.“Of course some tourists are well-informed, but how many travellers would darego into Burma with a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in theirbackpack?” Stothard said.“Many Burmese are happy to see foreigners, especially those concerned abouttheir plight, but they also feel unhappy that the money they spend is going tothe regime,” she said.Ironically, the diplomatic and commercial isolation imposed on the country as aresult of the junta has made it a more attractive destination to manytravellers concerned about security in the post-Sept. 11 worlds.“People are now fleeing to Burma from places like Thailand or Bali, where theyfear they will get blown up by Muslim extremists. Burma is a very safe placefor tourists; unfortunately, it is not a safe place for the Burmese,” Stothardsaid.So where can we go?While stopping short of pushing Suu Kyi’s stay-away line, Lonely Planet stillpushes “ethical tourism”, urging visitors to avoid where possiblegovernment-run travel agencies, hotels and airlines, thus depriving the juntaof hard currency.It is an approach popular with backpackers who want to visit Myanmar with aclear conscience.“If you start thinking about not coming here because of the government, youwill have to start thinking about whether to go to China, Laos, Tibet, or eventhe United States,” said Swiss backpacker Marcel Schonenberger.“If that was all you thought about, it would be impossible to travel anywhere,”he said.There is also the question of how effective tourist bans might be, given thejunta’s proven resilience in the face of mass student protests in 1988, tradeembargoes, asset freezes and visa restrictions imposed on its senior officers.The recent discovery of major oil and natural gas reserves off the Myanmarcoast also mean the sums of foreign exchange derived from tourism are now arelative pittance.Consequently, the majorities of tourists simply shrug their shoulders and geton with enjoying their holiday in blissful ignorance of the allegations ofrepression and abuse.“I’ve been to many places in the world, including Laos with its temples, butthis is something special -- and we’ve hardly seen it yet,” said Ilan Moshe, anIsraeli tourist. “The people are very kind, gentle and friendly.”