A Campaign Journal for Human Rights of All Ethnic Nationalities in Burma 



Not going


By Raluca Enescu


I will visit beautiful Burma when Aung San Suu Kyi says so........(Joanna Lumley, British actress) 

            The cost of a holiday could be someones life. Have you ever thought of this? Actually, those words belong in the slogan launched by the Burma Campaign UK, associated with their campaign to boycott tourism in Burma. You may, as well, wonder what this means. Since Burma opened up to tourism in 1988, over $1.1 billion has been invested in the hotel and tourism industry. Now, honestly: do tourists know that their money is bound to benefit one of the most repressive dictatorships in the world? Are they aware of the human rights abuses associated with the tourism industry? Lets take a look at the facts!

            According to The Burma Action Groups Alternate Guide (in fact, a report presenting the blatant human rights violations associated with developing the tourism industry, published in 1996 as part of the Dont visit Burma Year-a reaction to the regimes slogan Visit Burma Year), tourism industry is often associated with slave labour and forced relocations.

            A massive program of development is being carried out to make the country ready for tourists. An estimated two million people - including children - have been forced into slave labour alongside prison chain gangs. Says the report.   Thousand of ordinary Burmese people are being forcibly removed from their homes to 'clean up' tourist sites or to make way for new developments. One such development is the Myanmar Golf Club in Rangoon.  At first, the army blockaded the area, home to people who had been living there for decades. When this failed, the SLORC arrested one member of each family and sent them to jail. The remaining families were then forcibly moved to a new 'town' 25 kilometres out of the city. No compensation was paid.

            In addition, it is quite obvious that the current illegitimate regime strongly benefits from the tourism industry; not only because tourists draw in hard currency, but also because it is an effective and comfortable way for a junta faced with more and more criticism and disapproval from worldwide media to gain a certain kind of legitimacy.

            As for the social implications of either visiting Burma or, in contrary, boycotting tourism, there is not much truth in the myth that the tourism boycott would rather hurt ordinary people than the regime, as it is often claimed, as well as it is untrue that it is possible to visit Burma without benefiting the junta. Lonely Planets guide to Burma has tried to list a few tactics which, they claim, would prevent tourists from benefiting the dictators, such as staying at private hotels or avoiding patronizing companies involved with the military-owned Myanmar Economic Holdings. In a way, their initiative is to be appreciated, yet it is legitimate to ask: how effective and applicable are, actually, those guidelines?

            An article published in The Observer in 2003 said that according to western diplomats in the capital Rangoon, the military junta and their cronies are benefiting directly from recent tourism developments. A list of owners of the hotel plots at the newest beach resort in the country, Ngwesaung, reads like a Who's Who of generals and their cronies" We have to be aware that we are facing the typical situation of a closed society: there is a small group of people having the ultimate and exclusive control over all sources of income, and they are definitely not the ones that you want to benefit! Indeed, there exist privately own services, but does choosing these-ones prevent your money from getting to the regime? Hardly! Some services have been sold to private individuals, but a lot of them are, actually, the regimes close allies, so the problem remains unsolved. Moreover, in August 2002 Burmas Minister of Hotels and Tourism Maj-Gen Saw Lwin admitted that the government receives about 12 per cent of the income even of private tourism services. Given these conditions and the fact that around 75% of Burmas people make their living from agriculture, while of the remaining 25% only a small percentage ever come into contact with tourists, it becomes common sense that boycotting tourism to Burma would be a highly more suitable strategy than visiting the country anyway.

            Another common myth, which is to be found, more likely, among people with a higher awareness concerning Burmas case states that contact with tourists would help encourage democracy, communication and prevent abuses. Firstly, it is to be emphasized and clarified that boycotting the tourism is not the synonym of a complete isolation; anyone following the pledges of campaigners for Burma as well as NLDs statements can notice that the call for boycotts or sanctions is always accompanied or followed by a call for international action and diplomatic approach.  As for the communication issue, it becomes highly dubious whether a tourist visiting Burma should be able to get an accurate impression of the real happenings in the country, or whether he should be able to exchange information with local people. In 2001, for example, the Myanmar Tourism Promotion Board (MTPB) issued an order calling on local officials to protect tourists and prevent potential conflicts by limiting "unnecessary contact" between foreigners and ordinary Burmese.  In addition, take into account that, if speaking to foreigners about realities in the country, one can be imprisoned. Who would risk? There is a tight control preventing genuine contact between locals and foreigners. In the given circumstances, the accuracy of the impressions of a tourist is questionable; another very effective way for the regime to gain legitimacy.

            As a final, ultimate argument: the regime is desperately trying to promote tourism to the country; Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have asked for a boycott of the tourism; who has the right to represent Burmese peoples will? A junta illegitimately holding the power and guilty of countless abuses, or the elected leaders? It all comes down to whom you decide to support; and it is a decision you bear moral responsibility for. Joining worldwide campaigners, politicians, artists and people like you, by saying Im not going you are making a strong statement: that you cannot be fooled. 


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Read this author's other articles.


Feraya said _

I fully agree with you.  If it is for exposing the regime's crimes, by all means go, but otherwise NO.

Derek Tonkin said _

The US Dollars 1.1 billion invested in tourism relates only to contracted and approved foreign investment made under the Foreign Investment Law of 1988. The latest figure I have seen is US Dollars 1.034 billion for 43 tourist projects to end June 2006. Realised investment - that is actual financial transfers into Burma - is possibly only half that level, perhaps even less. Foreign invested projects have been cut back, or abandoned, or phased over several years. Foreign investors look for a high return on their investments - at least 15% and preferably 25% annually in a high risk market like Burma, and when this doesn't happen, they get out - if they can - or mothball their investment.  Do not confuse Current Account income with Capital Account investment transfers. Capital only provides income when a project becomes operational and moves into profit. For hotel projects anywhere in the world, this is unlikely to be before Year 6 after first investment or Year 3 after operation
 al start.

As regards Ngwesaung, we might ask who provided the development capital for the hotel projects - it does not grow on trees - and who is paying the land rentals to the State. It is one thing to be a crony and to be allocated a choice plot for development. It is another thing to find the resources to develop the property. Crony banks do not like lending money received  from crony depositors to crony developers.

Finally, the 12% tax on income from tourism - it varies for hotels, restaurants and other tourists facilitities - is a tax on net income, not on gross income, which means that if after deductible expenses you are only just breaking even, you have very little tax to pay. For foreign investments, there are tax holidays of up to 3 years, in some cases dating only from the first declaration of a net profit, and some hotels are still waiting for their first net profit.

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