Boycott bleeds Myanmar

However well-meaning, efforts to keep tourists from Burma, or Myanmar, only hurts the people, who have had enough of isolation. If only boycott advocates would stop patting themselves on the back and tour Myanmar, they would find nobody likes life on a Lonely Planet

By Ron Gluckman /in Yangon, Bagan, Pyay, Myanmar, and Bangkok, Thailand


WE'RE BUMPING ALONG RUTTED ROADS in a dusty rented car, Tony and the driver up front, Maureen and me in back, when Tony, face pressed in his Lonely Planet guidebook, suggests another stop.

  Up ahead is Thayekhittaya, ruins dating back 2,500 years. The description is enticing, but we cannot help but groan. For eight long hours we've been lurching on the road north from Myanmar's capital, Yangon. We ache, it's nearly dark, and tomorrow morning promises another long ride to Bagan, the ancient city that sits a day's ride further to the north, the goal of this journey.

Besides, we bowed to Tony last time, at Shwemyetman Paya (Temple of the Golden Spectacles). The appeal you guessed it a Buddha with big glasses.

 "It takes nine monks to lift the glasses every fortnight to clean them," Tony gleefully recites from the guide he keeps close at hand. 

  To be honest, we are a bit Buddha-ed out, a common condition among tourists in this pagoda-packed land. Still, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, exhorts Tony.

  So, as the sun sets, we're tramping through muddy fields only the temples are so far away, we never reach one. "Gee, this book should better explain the distance," says Tony, unabashed. "You really need more time here."

 You'd think he'd be at least a little bit contrite. After all, it's HIS guide book. Literally. Tony and Maureen Wheeler practically invented budget travel. Their hand-stapled reports back in 1973 from a honeymoon trek across Asia spawned Lonely Planet and its legendary backpacker guides. 

  With their down-to-earth, first-person reports of how to get there, what to see and where to stay, plus their in-depth sections on history, culture and the environment, all delivered with a 1960s-style counterculture slant, the Wheelers' guides have long been the bible for independent travelers. 

  But Tony and Maureen were not trudging through Myanmar to check on the accuracy of travel times in their book on the country. They came to this tragic but beautiful land because human rights activists have organized a boycott aimed at forcing them to cease publication of their Myanmar guide.

  "The development of tourism in Burma is directly linked to mass human rights abuses including rape, torture and murder," declares Tourism Concern and Burma Campaign, two London-based activist groups.

   "Lonely Planet's promotion of tourism to Burma . . . have left pro-democracy activists with no choice but to call for a boycott." The campaigners last year asked concerned travelers to stop buying any Lonely Planet books as long as the company publishes a Myanmar guide. The Wheelers reaction?

  "We were completely stunned," says Maureen. After all, their guides provide blunt expositions of human rights violations in addition to explaining how to get to obscure pagodas and where to find the best cheap meals.

  The company donates part of its profits to causes like women's rights and the environment (and including, for many years, Burma Campaign). Only repressive governments ban Lonely Planet guides for being too honest about the problems in countries they cover. Or so the Wheelers thought.

  The boycott is one of the latest acts in the long-running tragedy that is Burma or Myanmar, as it was named by the generals who seized power in 1988 over the bodies of thousands of student protesters. They later refused to relinquish control following elections in 1990 won by the opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Her courage in the years of resistance and house arrest since has earned her a Nobel Peace Prize.

  Tourism might seem a strange target in the battle against the junta, but the long stalemate has forced drastic tactics. The regime's plan to boost visitor numbers in the 1990s presented an obvious Achilles' Heel.

  Aung San Suu Kyi called on would-be tourists to shun her country, arguing that their money only helped the military, not the ordinary people. From there, the boycott has grown from telling foreigners not to go to Myanmar, to insisting that they not even buy books about going to Myanmar.

  Should you stay or should you go? "The message from Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD {her National League for Democracy party} has been unequivocal," says Patricia Barnett, director of Tourism Concern. "They say don't go, and they are the legitimate government. We have to respect their wishes." 

  The Wheelers were not sure. A two-page section in the Lonely Planet Myanmar guide outlines the pros and cons, but concludes: "Tourism remains one of the only industries to which ordinary people have access. Any reduction in tourism automatically means a reduction in local income earning opportunities. For this reason alone, we continue to believe that the positives of travel to Myanmar outweigh the negatives." 

  Still, logic dictates that the debate be decided in the country in question, not at the home office. Hence, Tony and Maureen have come to Myanmar to see things for themselves. Asiaweek tagged along for our own look.

  Tourism is bad, say boycott groups, since it props up the military regime and helps no one in Myanmar. That argument puzzles Soe Tint, a taxi driver in Yangon. Glancing in the mirror, he ponders this for perhaps a nano-second before replying, "How can anyone think that?" 

  If no tourists come, the 49-year-old grandfather would need a new job. Tint worked as a government civil engineer for 20 years. He saved up his money, and in 1995 bought a second-hand car and went into the taxi business. Now he can make $10 a day, six times his old salary. "What is bad," he says, "is this boycott. We need more tourists, not less."

Investors in the travel sector feel particularly disenfranchised.

 "Most of us came in the early 1990s, when there was great promise," says Arbind Shrestha, general manager of Trader's, Yangon's largest luxury hotel

. "The government made a commitment to open the market." His company, Shangri-la Hotels and Resorts, put $85 million into Myanmar, where it planned two hotels. Only the 392-room Trader's was completed. 

  The shells and abandoned construction sites of stalled projects litter the capital, reminders of a tourist boom that never happened. Occupancy around Yangon runs 25%-30%, against normal industry targets of 70%-80%. Says Shrestha: "We all feel cheated."

  Of course, one might dismiss five-star hoteliers as a pack of greed heads and sneer at their losses. But it's not just the big-time investors losing out. Duncan MacLean, manager of the swank Equatorial, says entry-level positions in his hotel pay $100 per month. That's a fivefold increase over the mid-1990s, when hotel clerks earned four times as much as nurses.

  The spread has only widened, he guesses. "I'd estimate that tourism brings Myanmar at least 100,000 jobs, and a million or more indirectly."

  Among those small timers benefiting are Burmese locals like Hillary Newton, whom I met on my very first visit in the early 1990s. Many visitors to this tourist-deprived land come to know Newton, who used to sit at Sule Pagoda in Yangon, approaching tourists with the smattering of English learned as a seaman, offering a range of services guide, translator, fixer anything to earn cash. Much has changed in Myanmar in the years since, but there was Newton outside the stupa, still chasing a fast buck.

  Now, he boasts business cards and works for a local travel agency. And he's not afraid to speak his mind. "We want change," Newton says over a curry in a shop not far from Sule. "But this movement really needs the help of our friends," he adds. "We need tourists and we need business. Reform will come later."

  I hear that sentiment expressed everywhere I go. Repeated so often by tour operators, hoteliers, taxi drivers, students, waiters, old friends that I fret about balance.

  Surely, somewhere there is someone who supports the boycott. Finally, I meet Herve and Thuzar. Herve's a Frenchman who quit selling stocks in Paris to roam around the world. In Burma, he fell in love with a land, a people, and Thuzar. They run a boutique travel agency taking small groups to amazing parts of the country. 

  "Perhaps with a boycott, it will give Burma a chance to go slowly and avoid all the mistakes of places like Thailand," he muses one magical night at a rooftop restaurant with moonlit views of the golden domes of Sule and Shwedagon.

  The latter inspired Rud-yard Kipling to write: "This is Burma and it will be quite unlike any land you know." Herve knows the feeling. "Of course, anyone who really wants to come will. They would be fools not to."

  Not quite the kind of support the boycotters are looking for.

  Still, British tourism has skidded to a halt as agencies dropped Myanmar. Australian outfits like Intrepid Travel, which specializes in small-group adventure tours, also abandoned the market.

  "We agonized over the decision to start trips to Burma," says Intrepid's responsible travel coordinator Jane Crouch. Trips started in 1995 and were among the company's most popular offerings, she says. But the last tours finished a year ago. 

  Melbourne staff felt the trips implied support of the junta. (Some say the firm bowed to pressure.) Tour leaders in Myanmar stayed on.

  "I couldn't just leave all these people we had trained. They trusted us," says Ian Marsh, a former Intrepid guide who now runs a firm called Global Drift and sells trips to essentially the same clientele, but quietly.

  "Nobody here wants the boycott," he says. "They want us here, and I believe we should be here, too."

  Boycott groups have a long list of gripes, most legitimate. Myanmar's record on human rights is abysmal. The junta's suppression of dissent, oppression of minorities, and links with drug traffickers is notorious.

  Keeping the focus on the tourist trade, the International Labor Organization said in 1998 that the government uses forced labor widely, including in tourism projects. 

  Residents have been evicted from some tourism sites, such as the ancient city of Bagan (also known as Pagan) in 1990. Authorities claimed it was to protect the archeological zone, then cluttered with guesthouses and tourist stalls. Critics countered that poor folk were swept aside for military-linked hotels. A decade later, Old Bagan's only new development is a big museum.

  Aung Nyet was evicted from Old Bagan. And New Bagan? "It was hard at first," Nyet says of the move. Only two weeks notice was given. "But things are better in New Bagan, We have better lights, more water." 

  Nyet has bulging muscles from building his riverside restaurant, where he serves Burmese favorites. Crafts from nearby villages are displayed for sale. Recent visitors included a group of German doctors, in country to perform free operations to repair cleft palates. 

"Tell people this boycott is completely wrong," he says. "The government and the people are different. Boycotts hit the people. When tourists don't come, everybody suffers."

  Bagan makes an interesting study. Easily Myanmar's most impressive site, this deserted city of 5,000 temples that flourished from the 11th to the 13th century ranks with Angkor Wat and the Pyramids of Egypt as a true world wonder. At sunset, tourists flock to Bupaya, a cylindrical stupa with stunning views over the Irrawaddy River. 

  Long before the crimson glow fades from the plain, most of them rush down to buses, then roar off to dinner shows at huge riverside restaurants. Left behind are a few awe-struck young travelers who came by bike.

  This is the ironic unintended consequence of the boycott. Sensitive travelers, the kind who patronize privately-owned guesthouses and small businesses, stay away. Group tours, from France, Italy and Japan especially, are pouring into state-run hotels. ("Business was better before 1996, but then it stopped," Hillary said back in Yangon. "For group tours, Burma is still popular, but individual travellers are much less than in the old days.") 

  And why have these few independent travellers come? "It's a beautiful country and everyone is happy to see us," one replies. "Nobody says, 'Why did you come?'"

  Peter, from Germany, sits in a tourist-oriented eatery, munching pizza. "I wanted to see for myself. Who's to say if tourists don't come the government will change?"

  That's the big question. Do boycotts work? Is the one against Myanmar having a positive impact?

  "Most likely it will turn the clock back, not forward," says Joe Cummings, who wrote the Lonely Planet guide. "Believe me, I want to see {the junta} toppled as much as anyone," he adds, "but there isn't a single indication that isolation will work. I remain convinced at least for the time being that it can only bring negative results."

  People who profit from tourism from guidebook writers to taxi drivers would be expected to oppose the boycott. But it does have strong support among Burmese, outside the country at least.

  "We advocate a total tourism boycott," says Soe Aung, the Thailand-based director of foreign affairs for the All Burmese Students Democratic Front. "Lonely Planet is a business that acts in its own interest. They don't care about the Burmese. They only want to sell books." 

  Maung Maung, general secretary of the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma, says the world should ratchet up the pressure. "Engagement doesn't help," he says over coffee at Starbuck's in Bangkok. And the suffering inside Myanmar? "This is a crisis situation. People just have to tighten their belts."

  Inside Myanmar, however, many feel they have suffered enough. Like a friend I will call Kyaw. He was jailed for six years following his election as an NLD parliamentarian.

  The junta couldn't break his spirit, but he was booted out of the NLD for daring to question its policies. "They insisted that we agree to follow their stand without consultation. I couldn't. I was an elected official. That's not democracy." 

  He adds: "This boycott is bad for the country. The generals just get richer and the poor get poorer. We need contact {with the outside world}, investment and industry. Foreigners bring ideas, skills. That's what we need. That's the only way forward."

  Ma Thanegi, jailed for three years after serving as an assistant to Aung San Suu Kyi, feels much the same. "Why should the people suffer? All these advocates on our behalf say that will help inspire people to take to the streets. But we already had a revolution in 1988. Burmese don't want to go through that again."

  When we discuss Burmese activists working outside their country, her eyes burn. "Tell them, come back here. Bring your children and march in the streets, then I'll march with you." 

  Ma Thanegi is a painter and writer well known to the Burmese lobby. One piece penned for an Asian magazine was reprinted by Lonely Planet as "The Burmese Fairytale." It concludes: "Myanmar has many problems, largely the result of 30 years of isolation. More isolation won't fix the problems. Don't close the door on us in the name of democracy."

  Yet activists don't talk to Ma Thanegi. Nor Kyaw. They're out of the loop. On the plane out of Yangon, I meet Ivan, a Danish activist who has worked years for the cause. This was his first visit. He spent five days in the capital, time enough to visit aid groups and others in his network before returning to Thailand for four weeks of consultation with refugee workers.

  "I didn't want to stay longer in Burma because tourism is so bad," he says. "Besides, that was enough to get a feel of the situation."

  Ivan is wearing a anti-child labor T-shirt. "It's another of our causes," he notes. As we leave the plane, he slips on an Aung San Suu Kyi pin. "I want to see the reaction of the stewardesses," he confides conspiratorially.

  But Myanmar needs more than gestures from well-wishers. The message in the country is clear: people want better government, but also investment and contact with the outside world. Not later, now. At the end of their trip, the Wheelers are exhausted but clear. 

  "We wrestled with the idea of putting out the book even before we heard from the boycott people," says Maureen.

  "We believe tourism can be a good thing, but we wanted to see for ourselves. Every-where we went, people were positive about tourism." 

  Pulling the book would actually be the easy way out. It sells less than 5,000 copies per year; the Thailand guide sells 50,000 annually. But taking it off the shelves? "No way," says Tony. Myanmar, he reckons, isn't helped by censorship or isolation. That's not how democratic debate works.


Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who is based in Hong Kong and Beijing, but who roams around Asia for a number of publications, such as Asiaweek, which ran this story in February 2001. Boycott advocates immediately criticized the piece, but it was widely praised in Myanmar, despite the fact the magazine is banned there.


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