4 October 2007
Ode to Burma: Our View of Myanmar Tourism
When Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 they drove millions of people from the cities into the fields. Over a period of four years as many as 1.5 million people died from torture, execution, starvation and forced labor. The world did nothing. Many nations, including China and neighboring Thailand, politely vowed not to meddle in Cambodia's internal affairs. Apparently the world has learned little from this dark moment in history because it seems to be repeating itself today in Myanmar.
Military dictators have run Burma for more than forty years and a lot of people do not like that. Regardless of the official ignorance of their governments, many people are very passionate about Myanmar, its dictatorship and the democracy movement there. There are two strong points of view. One is that the country be sanctioned and that foreign companies that do business in Myanmar are only helping to maintain the status quo. The other point of view is that openness is in the best long term interests of the people.
We subscribe to the latter opinion. Tourism in Myanmar employs people and exposes them to foreign cultures and ideas. I have see how the same openness helped to transform Vietnam over the past twenty years, and I believe it can help to bring about change in Burma. Sanctions clearly have not worked very well. They have only forced Burma into the arms of the Chinese, the North Koreans, the Libyans, and other countries where personal freedoms barely exist. Sanctions have forced already-poor people into starvation. Because Burmese products do not easily reach world markets, the country is increasingly dependent on opium production. In the end, the drug trade (and the associated crime, disease and burden on taxpayers) does serious harm to the rest of the world.
Because we send tourists to Myanmar, our company is on the "dirty lists" of organizations like the Burma Campaign, and I find no disgrace in that at all. What is disgraceful is that organizations like this solicit millions of dollars, pounds and Euros in donations every year and none of it appears to directly benefit the Burmese people. They donate no food or clothing, books or medicine. However, I get mail from well-intentioned people who badly want to do something about Myanmar but are not really given options by Campaign organizations to do much more than bother businesses that are following their own consciences. They beg us to give up our evil ways and get out of Burma.
While letter-writing makes people feel that they have done something important to solve a problem, it is really a tragic waste of time. If you really think letter-writing will do any good, write the leaders of ASEAN, an organization with lofty ideals for economics and human rights that has lost its credibility and dignity for allowing Myanmar to continue as a member.
Write letters to the embassies of China, India and Thailand and tell them you are ashamed that they are allowing the human rights issues in Myanmar to continue. Instead of forcing Myanmar into economic isolation, choose not to buy products from China, India or Thailand. Don't even eat Chinese, Indian or Thai food, which will change the course of the history of mankind just about as much as writing me a letter.
If you want to help Burma, go there yourself to meet the people and contribute personally to the local economy. Have experiences that will make you a better-informed world citizen. But please do not stay in government-owned hotels or fly on government-owned airlines. We do not use them for our own guests.
If you want to influence Burma's future, help to educate the next generation by donating books. Uneducated people are destined to live in hopeless poverty. Unless Burmese kids can read before they begin school, it is unlikely they ever will. With an average of 80 children per class in government schools, that's not surprising. Even if children can read, there aren't many books around--and when parents earn an average of $40 a month books are expensive at $2 or $3 each. Here is where you, your company or even your church can help: www.banyanreading.org. Can you imagine the impact that all those letter writers would have on an entire generation if each of them donated a single book?
And please remember that Myanmar is not the only repressive military regime in the world. There are several in Africa. But they do not count because most of us do not want to admit to ourselves that the Dark Continent even exists. There are juntas, military dictatorships and governments run by reactionary family dynasties in Asia, of course. Oops! Those do not count either because they are our allies in the War on Terrorism. Come to think of it, a country with a government that has derailed two free and democratic elections, routinely violates human rights and has a leader whose strings are being pulled by dark and despotic underlings and a military-industrial complex has a lot in common with some of the governments we hate the most. I only wish I could get my mother out of there.