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The Myanmar Dilemma

Should You Go?

Burmese and American travel promoters want you to visit this exotic Southeast Asia nation for its shimmering golden pagodas and bargain shopping. Human rights groups want you to stay away because of its repressive government and heroin trade. So when tourism and politics clash, the question for travelers is . . .

August 11, 1996|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

YANGON, Myanmar — If you're one who believes in visiting the former Burma, you may or may not be up-to-date on the fatal repression, the global heroin trade and the strange stranded-in-the-'50s atmosphere here. But either way, your most visible enticement to this Southeastern Asian country is probably the tower that stands gleaming on a hill above the city once known as Rangoon.

The 300-foot-high spire of Shwedagon Pagoda is layered with tons of gold and thousands of jewels, a 76-carat diamond on top, surrounded by a riot of red and yellow paint, dragons and elephants in effigy, steeply pitched, ornament-heavy roofs and smoldering incense.

From dawn to dusk, long-suffering workaday Burmese and red-robed monks circle the 2,500-year-old site, their faces protected from the sun's rays by yellowish rice paste. They nod to tourists, acquiesce to photos, kneel to meditate, perhaps reach to place a drooping blossom in a cup beneath a holy figure. W. Somerset Maugham wrote that the pagoda stood out "like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul."

One can take it as a symbol of Burmese spiritual resilience despite tyranny and poverty, as many American visitors do; or one can take it merely as a pretty picture, as Myanmar's governing but nonelected State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) would probably prefer.

In any event, the pagoda sells well. And the SLORC, eager to silence human rights activists calling for a tourism boycott of the country, is looking for more customers.

Over the last year, even as political pressures have led several international corporations to scale back their Burmese investments, Myanmar's leaders have stepped up a ferocious campaign to lure Western tourists--and their hard currency. That campaign will accelerate in October with the start of "Visit Myanmar Year."

The tourism campaign may pique the interest of adventurers who have heard of Myanmar as a gorgeous, exotic land that is only now beginning to show Western influences after more than 30 years of isolation. But the case of Myanmar raises a nagging question for modern-day travelers: Is my vacation a political act?

Many travelers, and most of those who make their living from tourism, argue that a tourist can't be blamed for all doings in their destinations, or no one would ever leave home. Under that philosophy, crossing borders may put some money in the pockets of objectionable leaders but stands as a chance to communicate the ideals of democracy and perhaps spread some wealth among strangers living in need.

Over the last decade, travelers' boycotts have been waged against destinations as disparate as South Africa, Arizona, Taiwan, Alaska and Norway in efforts to fight apartheid (now abandoned), the absence of a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. (the state has since adopted one), black-market trading in rhino horns, controversial wolf-control programs (now suspended) and whale-killing. Those who wage these campaigns see tourist dollars as contributions to the wrong side, pure and simple.

Accordingly, visiting Myanmar "is not appropriate," says Kyaw Tint, who fled the country in 1985 and now lives in Alhambra.

"All the facilities--the roads, the hotels and almost all the infrastructure used by tourists--are built by forced labor or foreign workers. Almost all of these hotels where tourists are going to stay are owned by the military or their families. If you go, the military is going to get profits. And if they have more money, they are going to make more oppression."

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Yet by some measures, the "Visit Myanmar" campaign is a success already.

Several large, upscale American travel companies have begun bringing travelers into Myanmar, including Abercrombie & Kent International, Classical Cruises & Tours, Geographic Expeditions, Butterfield & Robinson, Mountain Travel-Sobek and Radisson-Seven Seas Cruises. Stressing that they put as little money as possible into the government's pockets, those companies report a small but growing number of bookings from adventurous American travelers.

Beyond Yangon, visitors to Myanmar are likely to head for the 4,000 pagodas and ruined temples of Pagan, the floating gardens of Inle Lake, the long and winding Ayeyarwady (formerly Irrawaddy) River, the former capital of Mandalay or a handful of other prime attractions. The tourists are on a tight leash, however: Travel to many regions is forbidden.

Jim Sano, president of Geographic Expeditions (formerly InnerAsia) of San Francisco, started sending travelers to Myanmar in 1991 and expects to send about 100 travelers this year. He reasons that visitors "constitute a critical source of information and base of support for the Burmese people."

The other factor, says Sano, is that "if the vast majority of U.S. tour companies were to boycott Burma, it would be a speck of the entire tourism revenues going into that country"--an assertion that Myanmar's boycotters dispute.

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