Burmese people want freedom from a brutal regime, not tourists, argues European MEP Glenys Kinnock The Times, Wednesday May 9.
Holidays, of course, should be about fun and relaxation. But how many of us have ever questioned our right to travel and enjoy total freedom of movement? Probably not many.
And yet this is a very real issue — you could say it’s a matter of life and death — for those in a certain country who are asking us to make an ethical decision to stay away at present. They’re not some radical, out-of-touch extremists; in fact, they form a democratically elected party that won 82% of the seats in a parliament that has never been allowed to convene. These people have made very clear policy decisions, specifically asking foreign visitors to stay away, until the brutal military junta that rules the country allows them to take up their rightful place in government. The country is Burma. And the party that has pleaded with tourists not to visit their country is the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
Recent evidence given to the United Nation’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that around 8 million men, women and children are forced to labor on construction projects, including those linked to tourism, every year. Hundreds of thousands of Burmese people have been forcibly relocated from their homes over the last few years in order to develop the country’s infrastructure, much of which was created in order to boost tourism. In light of this evidence the ILO adopted a resolution last year, which called on its members to review their relations with Burma.
In spite of these horrors, though, many in the media and the travel industry have consistently argued for tourism to Burma to continue — often arguing that it benefits Burmese people. In fact, only the tiniest minority of Burma’s 48 million people are even touched by tourism. Around 75% make their living from agriculture; of the remaining 25% only a small percentage comes into contact with tourists. So whilst you may be able to give a few dollars to benefit someone working in the tourism industry, the scales don’t quite balance when tourism is simultaneously helping to prop up a regime that keeps 48 million people in the most desperate poverty.
In a country that has measured the opinions of its people only once in the last 41 years, and even then chose to disregard them, there is little to guide us as to what ordinary Burmese people really feel about tourism. Wild claims from some in the industry that the “overwhelming majority” want tourism are pure fantasy. The fact is the NLD is the only party mandated to represent the interests of Burma’s people — and theirs is a voice that continues to draw the support and respect of people both inside and outside the country, despite a vicious campaign of persecution by the regime to silence it.
I have been fortunate enough to meet Suu Kyi, after travelling into the country under the cover of a tourist visa obtained in Bangkok. Her courage and heroism is breathtaking, and her grace, composure and dignity affected me deeply. She is a remarkable woman, with sharp political insight, a fierce determination to bring about freedom in Burma, and a strong and phenomenal sense of calm given the personal suffering she endures and the extreme pressure she is under. She and the NLD are trying to work out nonviolent strategies to oust a regime that has few competitors in terms of its horrific human rights record.
One night, after meeting Suu Kyi, I found a scrap of paper on my pillow in my hotel room in Rangoon. It was inscribed with her name — nothing more — and was presumably put there by a brave hotel worker trying to communicate support for the pro-democracy leader. That simple act took infinite courage.
Burmese people want freedom from a tyrannical and brutal regime — one engaged in genocide and the perpetration of relentless misery. I remain convinced that we must respond to this terrible human suffering. We have a duty and a responsibility to call for political action and for the isolation of the regime.
Suu Kyi has asked a simple thing of the international community. She hasn’t asked for us to be courageous; she hasn’t asked for money; she hasn’t asked for military help. She’s asked for sanctions so that the junta will be starved out of existence. I believe the international community should impose sanctions, but there is also something that ordinary citizens can do: we can impose our own sanctions and not go on holiday to Burma.
As Suu Kyi has said: “Sometimes breadth of vision dictates that travel be curbed in the interests of justice and humanity”.