The Burma dilemma

By GARY WALSH Thursday 26 April, The Age

The issue of travelling to Myanmar is fraught with complexities – merely using the name Myanmar instead of Burma is sometimes construed as a political statement.

In the same way that the Khmer Rouge renamed Cambodia as Kampuchea during their reign of terror, SLORC (the State Law and Order Restoration Council) changed Burma’s name to Myanmar in 1989.

It did so on the basis that Burma was the colonial name for the country – Myanmar has been the traditional name since at least the 13th century.

The west, often reluctantly, has accepted that Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh City, that Bombay is Mumbai and that Madras is Chennai, but still clings to the name of Burma. For what it’s worth, the UN uses Myanmar.

Visiting the country as a tourist also raises political questions. Does travelling to Myanmar confer legitimacy to a regime that overturned the result of an election in 1990 that brought a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, and does spending tourist dollars help fund its continuance?

Certainly SLORC (now the State Peace and Development Council) has its fingers in many tourism pies, including MTT, the state tourism agency, some hotels, Myanma Airways, the Yangon-Mandalay express train and the MTT ferry between Bagan and Mandalay.

It is argued by some that the government, rather than private citizens, benefits from tourism; that there is no way of ensuring that money spent in Myanmar flows to ordinary people rather than an oppressive regime.

For the record, I saw less overt evidence of a military or police presence in Myanmar than in other South-East Asian countries, including Laos and Vietnam. This is not to say, of course, that repression does not exist. One senior western diplomat described Myanmar as “a very efficient police state”.

The people of Myanmar are probably the friendliest I have ever encountered. They speak openly, but obviously within limits, about their political situation, and routinely tell jokes about their government.Most people I spoke to wanted to see tourism develop (admittedly, most were involved in the tourism industry) and believed that it would benefit the wider community.

Most also held the view that both the regime and the opposition needed to bend a little from their entrenched views. And while it could scarcely be called a rapprochement, there are now signs of political progress, with talks between Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest, and the government.

Aung San Suu Kyi has called for a protest on tourism to Myanmar, but others within the National League for Democracy do not hold such a hard-line view.

Another pro-democracy campaigner and former political prisoner, Ma Thanegi, wrote an article for the Far Eastern Economic Review in 1998 that rejected Aung San Suu Kyi’s protest call.

“Ma Suu’s approach has been highly moral and uncompromising, catching the imagination of the outside world. Unfortunately, it has come at a real price for the rest of us. Sanctions have increased tensions with the government and cost jobs. But they haven’t accomplished anything positive,” she wrote.

“Burma has many problems, largely the result of almost 30 years of isolationism. More isolation won’t fix the problems and sanctions push us backwards, not forward. We need jobs, we need to modernise. We need to be a part of the world. Don’t close the door on us in the name of democracy.”

Australia’s ambassador to Myanmar, Trevor Wilson, said there was a “great deal of ignorance and preconception” about the country in the west.He said there was no question that local people benefited from tourism, and that tourism was an important factor in bringing about change in Myanmar.

Controversially, Australia has sponsored human rights seminars for middle-ranking government, military and police officials, and Wilson said he believed its efforts in influencing the Myanmar regime’s policies had been “modestly successful”.

Australia was seen as “a player” in Myanmar “because of our policy of having direct talks despite the nature of the government. The Myanmar government, the UN and other agencies see us as quite a significant player. We have a very good relationship with both the government and the opposition.”

Travel operators have differing views on dealing with Myanmar.Intrepid Travel began tours there in 1995, but pulled out in late 1999 following a request by Amnesty International.

Director Darrell Wade said the decision to withdraw was made by a staff vote after Amnesty told Intrepid it believed human rights abuses in Myanmar were directly related to tourism.“Although we thought our operations were very sound, running tours to Burma could be seen as tacit approval of the regime,” Wade said.

He said Intrepid staff felt that the company’s strong heritage of awareness of human rights and responsible travel would be compromised if it continued operating in Myanmar.Intrepid is now reviewing its policy again, and will decide by the end of next month whether to resume trips to Myanmar. It will involve its clients and Amnesty International in the decision.

Conversely, Peregrine does operate tours. “We are not in the business of endorsing or condemning political systems with our choice of travel destinations,” Peregrine director Max Roche said. “We believe it’s entirely the right and responsibility of the individual.”

He said Peregrine hoped to educate travellers by showing them the country in depth and introducing them to local people. “We absolutely condemn the political system, but we think it’s important to have eyewitnesses and advocates in the community.”

Roche said it would be “expedient for us to pull out of Myanmar – we don’t make any money there. But we deal with small companies. Of course, some money goes to SLORC, but the company tax there is only 10percent, so we’re sure the vast majority goes to individuals.”

Amnesty International’s position is that it “doesn’t take a position on protesting Myanmar – we neither actively support or oppose a protest in any country,” according to campaign coordinator Andrew Beswick.

He said Amnesty had provided information on the human rights situation in Myanmar in 1999 when Intrepid Travel was deciding the future of its operations there: “We do ask companies operating in these sorts of areas to use their influence to improve human rights.”

In its Myanmar guidebook, Lonely Planet says: “Our editorial belief is that if people decide to visit Myanmar, they should support non government-sponsored tourism, and they should go with as much advance information as possible, travelling with their eyes and ears open.”

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