Even after a decade of debate, the question of whether or not tourists should travel to Burma remains a much-contested issue. Evidence suggests that travel to Burma only indirectly supports the military regime’s harsh policies with tourist dollars. Is a boycott appropriate or counterproductive?
Those in favor of boycotting travel cite the Burmese government’s disregard for human rights and its devastating policies of ethnic cleansing in places such as Arakan State, a region of western Burma inhabited by a Muslim ethnic group known as the Rohingya. In 1996, child labor was reportedly used to build tourism infrastructure such as new roads, airstrips and the Mandalay. Claiming to be protecting ancient temples, the government also summarily evicted residents from Bagan and other tourist sites.
According to a US State Department report, “Urban poor and street children in Rangoon and Mandalay are at risk of involuntary conscription as child soldiers by the Burmese junta. Thousands of children are forced to serve in Burma’s national army as desertions of men in the army rise. Some children were threatened with jail if they did not agree to join the army.” Recently, the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch reported that the number of political prisoners had doubled since 2007.
The Shan Women Action Network (SWAN) recently launched a guidebook “Forbidden Glimpses of Shan State.” Aimed at tourists, the book provides a pictorial exposé of the military regime’s deliberate neglect, destruction and reinvention of local cultural and historical sites. “We not only have been robbed of our rights, lands and resources but the regime is also robbing us of our culture and history,” said SWAN spokesperson Moan Kaein in a statement.
Opponents of the tourism boycott argue that tourism provides ordinary Burmese citizens with access to hard currency and contact with the world beyond Burma, counteracting the government’s policy of isolation. Furthermore, even after a decade travel boycotts do not appear to have influenced the Burmese government in any significant way.
On the other side of the issue are the proponents of the boycott, including British organizations such as the Burma Campaign UK, Tourism Concern and Co-operative Travel, who argue that tourism only benefits the military governments. However, figures from Burma’s Ministry of Hotel and Tourism indicate that only 200,000 tourists passed through Rangoon’s airport in 2008, fewer than in previous years, contributing less than 1.5 per cent of the government’s income. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Burma’s generals make most of their money by selling off the country’s natural resources, which include teak, gas and precious stones. Tourist dollars are a mere drop in the bucket of their funding.
Even opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s most famous political detainee, appears to have changed her mind regarding tourism, as Telegraph Travel reported in 2008. She now believes that private-sector tourism may benefit her downtrodden compatriots and the country as a whole. The nonprofit organization Voices for Burma believes that tourists can bring economic, social and cultural benefits to local people, provided they travel responsibly.
Clearly, Burmese tourism is a double-edged sword. Whether it helps or harms the people of Burma ultimately depends on where and how you spend your money. For Voice for Burma’s guidelines for responsible travel to Burma, visit: voicesforburma.org/responsible-tourism.
Read Ethical Traveler's Reprint Policy.