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Ethically Speaking: Should You Vacation in Burma?

Tourism in Myanmar?

Or would that be tourism in Burma?

Even the name of the country is open to serious dispute. And considering the recent catastrophic cyclone there which caused upwards of 100,000 deaths, the idea of going there might seem counterintuitive, if not absurd.

Certainly, a good argument can be made that directing any tourist money towards Burma would be immoral. That’s because tourism not only pours money directly into the coffers of the military junta, but the presence of tourists is seen as lending legitimacy to an illegitimate regime:

In fact, according to [Burma Campaign UK spokesman] Mr. Farmaner, Burma is unique in that many of its human rights abuses are directly connected to the military’s decision to promote tourism.

“Much of the country’s tourist infrastructure is developed by the use of forced labor,” he said. “People have been made to construct roads, airports, and hotels, and thousands more have been forcibly relocated to make way for tourist areas.”

Campaigners want to discourage trade, investment, and tourism

It is because of the close link between the tourist industry and the government that Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently under house arrest, has on several occasions asked tourists to stay away from Burma.

“Tourism to Burma is helping to prolong the life of one of the most brutal and destructive regimes in the world,” she told reporters once. “Visiting now is tantamount to condoning the regime.”

Opposition to tourism has led to a boycott of Lonely Planet, which issued a guide to travel in Burma:

The current political situation in Burma is so highly charged that Britain’s Trade Union Congress (TUC) is asking travelers to stop buying Lonely Planet’s guide to Burma in order to encourage the company to withdraw the book from the market.

The TUC along with Tourism Concern, Burma Campaign UK, and the New Internationalist launched an online petition on Thursday calling for the immediate withdrawal of the Lonely Planet guidebook because “holidaying in Burma is one of the most unethical trips you could make, given the brutality of the current regime,” as New Internationalist co-editor Chris Brazier explained.

This brings into question what role tourism plays on the political scene. Both the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Burmese unions have asked travelers not to visit their country as long as the military regime is in power.

Asking people not to visit a country is one thing, but demanding a book be pulled and boycotting its publisher — those tactics strike me as heavy-handed. The Lonely Planet Guide to Burma is still for sale at Amazon.com, and the company defends its guide here.

It’s worth noting that Lonely Planet also publishes guides to other countries which don’t respect human rights, such as China, Cuba, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. I don’t have time to investigate every last thug-ruled country to see whether a travel guide has been published, but I’m sure there are plenty of others.

Frankly, book-banning campaigns smack of censorship, and they’re not the way to win me over. There is no doubt, though, that the facts and figures cited by the opponents of tourism in Burma are appalling:

56.7 million: current population of Burma (IMF 2007), 75 per cent of which earn a living through agriculture. Of the remaining 25 per cent, just a small proportion benefit from tourism.

8 million: number of men, women, and children conscripted as forced labor, often for the development of tourism infrastructure, by the military regime since it seized power during a coup in 1962. This is often imposed under threat of beatings, torture, rape, or murder.

1 million: number of people displaced under the current regime to make way for tourism developments, often with just a few hours notice and little or no compensation for the loss of their homes and businesses.

1,300: number of political prisoners thought to be currently held by the military regime. This may include people who have expressed dissent at being displaced to make way for, or conscripted to help build, tourism developments.

Moreover, tourists might be accused of contributing to the environmental damage that’s said to be implicated in the cyclone damage.

Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), mentioned in an address in Singapore that expanding coastal populations and widespread mangrove degradation played key roles in worsening the cyclone’s impact. Much of the damage from the cyclone was caused by storm surge, powerful waves whipped up by the high winds.

“The mangrove forests, which used to serve as a buffer between the rising tide, between big waves and storms and the residential area … all those lands have been destroyed,” Agence France-Presse reported him saying. “Human beings are now direct victims of such natural forces.”


According to the United Nations, nearly half of the world’s population lives within 150 kilometers of a coast, and more are projected to move there in coming years due to population growth and tourism. Myanmar is no exception to this trend. The recent cyclone flooded the city of Yangôn, home to more than 4 million people, as well as several other cities of between 100,000 and 500,000 people. “Poorly constructed homes in low-lying, incredibly exposed areas … it’s just set-up for this sort of disaster,” Smith said.

“Poorly constructed homes in low-lying, incredibly exposed areas”? That has a familiar ring.

But would anyone suggest that tourists not go to New Orleans?

While the cyclone has inflicted great damage on Burma’s tourist industry, it has also heightened the existing debate among those in the tourist-outfitters industry.

Even before the disaster, there have been two sides — both presented quite fairly here, and it isn’t clear to me who is right. While there’s obviously a morally compelling case against traveling to Burma, consider this argument from Thant Myint-U:

Isolation has been Burma’s curse. In the early 1960s, the military regime, having just come to power, shut off the country from the outside world, ending nearly all foreign aid and investment, and banning tourism. The regime evolved and entrenched itself in this self-made cocoon. Then in the early 1990s, with a decades-long civil war nearly over, Burma’s generals, while still shunning democratic change, decided to liberalize the economy and encourage foreign visitors. Rangoon was transformed. Dozens of hotels were built, together with hundreds of new restaurants, from sushi bars to French bistros, all privately owned.

But the army leadership has opened up only tentatively and this openness is something to make use of, not reject. Isolation is the regime’s default condition. It is what fuels the present system. Burma might not become a democracy overnight, but it will certainly improve with more outside interaction. Would Indonesia be better off if no one had visited during its 30 years of military rule?

Responsible tourism can help to lift many ordinary people from poverty and an influx of outsiders will hasten the possibility of political change. And it’s just not true that tourist money props up the government. Nearly all hotels are privately or foreign owned (including all the big ones). It’s easy to avoid the few government-owned hotels if you want — the Lonely Planet guide spells it out. None of the big hotels has made any money, at least not yet, and none has paid significant taxes. It’s true that the state receives money from airport taxes and other small tourist fees, but all this is a negligible amount, perhaps a few tens of millions of dollars a year, a figure which must be compared with the billion dollars a year the treasury now receives from natural gas exports — a figure which will grow rapidly.

What I find especially telling is that the Burmese government has apparently been blocking aid to the cyclone victims out of fear that foreign visitors might spark unrest:

A U.S. official said that because of the military’s tight controls, the U.S. was concerned its aid wouldn’t reach the victims of the cyclone.

The WFP [World Food Program] estimates it has fed only 30,000 survivors so far and faces problems scaling up its response because only 10% of the necessary manpower and other logistics support needed to distribute aid are in place so far.

While Myanmar’s reclusive generals, in power since 1962, welcome foreign aid, they have balked at allowing in a wave of foreign aid workers apparently out of fear of sparking social unrest. The government has so far granted visas to only a fraction of the U.N. personnel with experience to run aid operations of this kind.

Outrageous. As far as I’m concerned, this is a good argument for a wholesale invasion of the country — if not military, then perhaps by concerned travelers bringing in food and money. If someone were to organize such a thing, I suspect many people would be inclined to get on a plane tomorrow.

As a matter of fact, an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer all but called for an invasion of Burma:

If ever a crisis cried out for the United Nations to step in forcefully, this was it. Not only did the world body have a moral obligation to intervene, it had already created the vehicle.

In 2005, U.N. members adopted a protocol known as the “responsibility to protect,” which says the international community has a duty to intervene when a nation cannot, or will not, protect its citizens from crimes against humanity. Even if it means violating a nation’s sovereignty, the U.N. agreed, it has a responsibility to act in such circumstances.

Considering the magnitude of the crisis, the idea of a tourism boycott seems a bit beside the point.

Instead, right now I think an organized blogger travel campaign would be an excellent idea. (It’s worth keeping in mind that Burmese bloggers have been risking their lives to get the truth out.)

In a piece in the Scotsman, Emily Pykett argues that “the Burmese junta is made up of 11 reclusive, paranoid, xenophobic generals who despise the western world,” while Mark Farmaner (director of Burma Campaign UK and a leading advocate of the tourism boycott), seems to admit that nothing has worked so far:

The most senior general, Than Shwe, is 73, very sick — and quite crazy. Many people hope that when he dies the regime will shift, but we think the generals under him are just as hardline.

So there is no real option but for the junta in Burma to be forced to change. We need the United Nations Security Council to overrule it. Trade embargoes, sanctions, the “softly-softly” diplomatic approach — nothing else has worked so far. It is time for individual governments to start getting in there. By this, I mean infiltrate Burma if they have to — we can’t wait for permission any more.

Agencies should start delivering aid to cyclone survivors regardless of the junta’s position because the alternative is to stand by and watch thousands of people die.

The international community is making the same mistake as it has done for the past 20 years: assuming that somehow reason and logic will work.

Obviously, logic and reason will not persuade them. However, I have to ask, do the paranoid dictators who run the place imagine that tourists will just come in, dump money, and then leave without infecting the oppressed Burmese with notions of freedom? I’m not sure it’s that easy. Tourism could be a two-edged sword. Especially tourists who are going there with an eye towards economically helping ordinary Burmese any way they can.

The most vociferous anti-tourism advocate is the famed, Nobel Prize-winning dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. By all rights, she should be the elected leader of her country, except the junta has never recognized the elections. She’s been honored by the United States Senate and hailed in Hollywood. That kind of moral authority counts a lot, and her view that tourists should not visit Burma should be seriously taken into account by anyone contemplating travel there.

However, according to all the accounts I have read, ordinary Burmese seem delighted to see tourists. Whether that will translate into a popular uprising against the junta is doubtful. (These are peaceful Buddhists.) But on the other hand, isn’t it at least theoretically possible that Aung San Suu Kyi is mistaken? If all possible tourists followed her advice and stayed away from the country, Burma would be even more isolated than it is now. Anyone who thinks isolation necessarily results in regime collapse ought to consider the long life of North Korea, probably the most isolated and xenophobic country in the world. Suu Kyi frequently analogizes to the South African boycott, but the difference between Burma and South Africa is that Burma has not been part of the modern Westernized world in the way South Africa was, and thus is not vulnerable in the same way.

No one denies the appalling ongoing human rights situation in Burma. In light of the slaughter of the Buddhist monks last year, it seems hard to believe that things could have gotten any worse. But they have.

I can certainly understand opposing business as usual with this murderous regime, and I find the idea of contributing any money at all to the government as morally repellent. However, while I’m not planning to go there, I’m not convinced that a call for an absolute boycott of all travel there is the best approach, especially right now.

Paranoid xenophobic thugs thrive on isolation. Is it a good idea to let them starve their people in private?

While the answers are not crystal clear, at the risk of sounding like a hegemonic blogger elitist, I will stick my neck out here and venture that there might be a moral distinction between intrepid bloggers like Michael Totten engaged in a genuine search for the truth, and stereotypical yahoo tourists in Bermuda shorts.

On the other hand, maybe bloggers could pose as stereotypical tourists to avoid suspicion at the border. Just a thought.

So, a question for readers: Would you vacation in Burma?

Eric Scheie is a licensed California attorney (UC Berkeley ’78; USF Law School ’82) currently living in the Philadelphia area. A registered Republican, war-supporting, small “l” libertarian and self-styled “culture war traitor,” he writes (often satirically) about cultural issues and politics at ClassicalValues.com.