The Moral Minefield
covering burma and southeast asia
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The Moral Minefield


By Aung Zaw FEBRUARY, 2007 - VOLUME 15 NO.2


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So you’re planning to visit Burma? Then read this first…

One question often posed by foreign friends and visitors who come to my office is whether they should visit Burma. I find it difficult to offer a straightforward answer.

In order to sound out the opinions of others, I put the same question to other foreign friends and Burmese people involved in Burmese affairs and the tourism business. Understandably, their reaction is mixed and cautious.

 

 

Many shared the view that Burma has the potential to become a top tourist destination in Southeast Asia, if developed properly, but that it still has a long way to go.

Since last October, prior to the high season, local papers and pro-regime journals were upbeat. In early October, the 7 Day News journal reported o­n an American millionaire’s visit to Pagan and Mandalay—“An American named Mr Sam Zell who is o­n the Forbes magazine list of the 400 richest Americans and his six-member party arrived in Bagan (Pagan) by helicopter o­n 5 October.”

Hotels at Chaung Tha Beach, o­n the Bay of Bengal, were also ready to welcome tourists, and had received many reservations, the paper claimed, extolling the peaceful and relaxing holidays to be enjoyed there.

In December, a European traveler who often visits Burma noted that a Thai Airways flight to Rangoon was full. Although EU governments discourage their citizens from visiting Burma, holidaymakers included Swiss, German and French tourists.

“Your country has the potential to become a top tourist destination,” said the traveler. “Many want to visit Burma, but the regime has little idea how to promote tourism.”

He cautioned, however, that the tourism industry was still very much controlled by the military and its cronies. He saw taxi drivers, tourist guides and hoteliers enthusiastically awaiting the arrival of more tourists. If tourism ever became o­ne of Burma’s main sources of income, the military and its cronies would monopolize it, he said.

I know that tourism brings both joy and tears to Burma. Since the regime launched the “Visit Myanmar Year” campaign in 1996, roads have been widened, hotels built and expanded, and some historical palaces have been renovated.

At Ngwe Saung beach, a popular tourist destination, villagers living along the beach were relocated when the regime wanted to promote the resort. Villagers still bitterly talk about the forced evictions, which occurred without compensation.

Hotels, roads and highways were built by regime-friendly companies. o­ne of the top hotels in Rangoon, Traders, was built by the Asia World Company, which is run by former drug lord Lo Hsing-han and his son, Steven Law. There is no doubt that drug money has been poured into the tourism industry. Likewise, several ethnic businessmen and former warlords who were involved in shady business and illicit trade have invested in bus lines, transportation and the construction of hotels and resorts.

Be that as it may, the tourism industry is still at a standstill in Burma. Tour companies reacted o­nly with optimism when Burma’s neighbors faced troubles and natural disasters. For instance, they saw o­nly the benefits of a spillover of tourists when Bali was attacked by terrorists or when neighbors were hit by the 2004 tsunami.

In 1994, two years before the “Visit Myanmar” campaign, about 47,230 tourists visited Burma. In 1996, the regime set the target at 500,000. o­nly 10 years later, according to official figures, was this target somehow attained.

 

The trouble is that Burma’s military leaders have little idea of what tourists want to see in their country. The sleepy Hotels and Tourism Ministry moved to the new capital Naypyidaw, central Burma, in 2005. The irony is there is not much the ministry can do from there to lure tourists.

Consequently, local people and some tour guides in Rangoon told me that it is not the boycott campaign alone that is hurting tourism, but the regime must also share the blame.

I still think the famous tombs in Rangoon, including those of former UN Secretary General U Thant, independence hero Aung San, and Burma’s last queen Suphayalat, should be perfect tourist sites, but they lie neglected and overgrown.

Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who asked tourists to avoid Burma until democracy is restored, thought of tourism and its impact.



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