Burma - still not okay as a tourist destination

Now that Burma is opening up to the outside world, tour operators, the media and the tourists themselves are closing their eyes to the backs of the top-governed country's socially and ecologically unsustainable tourism industry. In the long run, tourism can play an important role in Burma's economic development, but tourists should refrain from traveling to Burma until human rights are respected and a truly civilian, democratic government rules in parliament. It writes Angelika Kahlos, S-Studenternas Burmautskott.

The first snow over Sweden has already fallen and the free, spontaneous summer is just a memory, far from most people's gray, framed everyday life. Then the travel companies' commercials and posters appear as reminders of everyone's opportunity to escape the winter, for lazy days on a sunny beach far away. In the media, Burma has been named a new, trendy travel destination and analysts predict that the country will offer fierce competition to its popular neighbor, Thailand, for tourists' money in the future. But is it really okay now to be a tourist in the former military dictatorship?

Many are the Swedish travel companies and daily and evening newspapers that have recently hyped Burma as a fresh alternative to the traditional tourist resorts. Burma is described as one of the few "untouched gems" in the world and its culture and people are often portrayed as "exotic", in a "tickling", "exciting" way. Burma's political history and current situation are often described in a few, more sweeping sentences. It is claimed that the time when Burma was ruled by a military regime is now over, and that democracy has instead entered the country. As proof of the latter, it is often pointed out that several hundred political prisoners of conscience have already been released, and that more releases are to be expected.

But for Burma's democracy movement, which has always existed both in the country and in exile, even during the years when the country was ruled by a military regime, not much has changed in depth. Although individuals, such as the now released political prisoners, have benefited from the political reforms of recent years, there is reason to, from a larger, structural perspective, be critical of the outside world's acceptance of Burma's current government and interests in the country.

Because at the same time as certain prisoners of political conscience are released, other democracy activists are arrested and new names are constantly written on the so-called "black list" of wanted dissidents. The country is still top-down by an undemocratic parliament that consists for the most part of the military and ex-military. It is hardly possible to travel as a tourist to Burma without supporting these militaries, because they - and their minions among the rich businessmen and women - own hotels, restaurants, shopping malls and means of transport, such as domestic flights, among many other things. Concern for both the environment and the civilian population must be set aside when so-called "development projects" are prepared: among other things, investments in increasing tourism to Burma. People are forcibly relocated from their land, which is seized, when the military seeks land to utilize for various projects, the profits of which seldom benefit ordinary people. As Burma now prepares for a future tourist boom, new buildings must also be built and infrastructure improved rapidly. This leads to forced labor, and even children are forced to work, in the country's food restaurants and construction sites. In Rangoon, I myself, during my work trips, have seen minors climb children's feet or in thin sandals on fragile house facades at construction sites, and I have seen them sip beer and tobacco along popular tourist routes. I have seen children dig ditches, sweep the sidewalks and work as pitchers in Rangoon - all of which are activities classified as child labor and which are therefore prohibited under international human and labor law conventions.

One problem is that Burma is not a party to so many international conventions. And even though Burma has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, child labor occurs, even in the military, as I myself witnessed when I passed underage soldiers, armed with rifles, along one of Burma's borders. The government relinquishes responsibility for protecting the human rights of the population and is often the perpetrator itself.

As a tourist, however, you rarely see these sides of Burma, as you cannot travel to all parts of the country. Tourists are denied access to areas where armed fighting is taking place, especially with the ethnic minorities. In Kachin State, the state military has used chemical weapons during phosphorus attacks, and in Arakan State, according to Human Rights Watch, ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority Rohingyas is underway. During the autumn, the ethnic-religious conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims also affected Thandwe, the city in Arakan State to which foreign beach tourists arrive by plane before being transported to their holiday hotels. The news report emphasized that no tourists had been harmed in the unrest - but the problem still remains: there is more than a civil war going on in Burma and the affected civilian population is hardly helped by the fact that tourists' money goes to the government and its military.

I, and my colleagues in the S-Student Burma Committee, believe that it is still not okay to travel as a tourist to Burma. In the future, tourism will certainly play a major and important role in Burma's economic development, but at present tourism is not socially and ecologically sustainable and respectful of the civilian population. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party have not, as many media outlets incorrectly stated, "given the green light to tourism" to Burma. Rather, she and the NLD have called on those who now seek refuge in the country to do so in solidarity with the civilian population and with great regard for both nature and prevailing culture.

We in the S-Student Burma Committee support this position and therefore urge travelers to refrain from tourism to Burma, until the day when the protection of human rights is stronger in the country and a truly civilian, democratic government rules in parliament.

Resist the glassy advertising of the media and travel companies!

Angelika Kahlos

S-Student Burma Committee


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