From the Responsible Travel archives: Is it ethical to travel to Burma? (2006)

UPDATE: May 2011
Following news that the NLD now welcomes responsible tourism we've lifted our boycott on Burma
Burma (also known as Myanmar) is a well preserved example of pristine South East Asian culture and scenery, due to its isolation it remains relatively untouched by Western influences. Tourism to the country has, however, been widely linked to human rights abuses, and the country's pro-democracy leader and Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has asked tourists to stay away - a boycott that has been supported by the international community.

But this isolation of Burma’s people has caused increasing divide as to whether the boycott should continue to be upheld, and we ask if staying away from Burma is still the right thing to do, or if it is time to lift the boycott on this magical but troubled country.

Festooned with symbols of Buddhism, pagodas and ancient towns, Burma - the largest country in mainland South East Asia - has ample ingredients for a thriving tourism industry and great potential for foreign investment.

“Experience the marvellous ancient monuments, charming peoples, dramatic scenery and colonial nostalgia of Burma” is how a tourist brochure introduces this undoubtedly magnificent country, but it does not reflect the bloodshed, displacement and military atrocities that have occurred in the background.

Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) has been under the military rule of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), an abominable military junta that has, despite facing international condemnation and sanctions, ruled since 1988. It suppresses dissent and stands accused of gross human rights abuse, forced relocation of civilians and (child) slave labour to build tourist infrastructure. The country’s key industries are controlled by the military, riven with corruption and carrying the hallmarks of a black market economy, including prostitution and the export of heroin.

In 1990 Aung San Suu Kyi’s party - the National League for Democracy (NLD) - won a landslide victory with 82 percent of the seats in Burma’s first multi-party elections for 30 years. However, the party has never been allowed to govern and Aung San Suu Kyi has had several restrictions put upon her, including many years of house arrest.

She feels that the withdrawal of international investment would limit the fuelling of the military junta and has repeatedly asked tourists not to visit Burma because no where else in the world have human rights abuses and tourism been so closely linked. "I still think that people should not come to Burma because the bulk of the money from tourism goes straight into the pockets of the generals. And not only that, it's a form of moral support for them because it makes the military authorities think that the international community is not opposed to the human rights violations which they are committing all the time. They seem to look on the influx of tourists as proof that their actions are accepted by the world." (Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, January 1999)

Most of the Western world - including the UK and other EU countries - is honouring her wishes for a boycott of tourism to the area. They have made the unusual stance of identifying tourism as a concern and advising their citizens not to visit the country on ethical grounds rather than safety.

However, not all agree with this boycott. The Free Burma coalition, a Burmese-led political initiative, reviewed the effectiveness of their pro-sanction campaigns which they had carried out for nearly a decade, and categorically reversed their pro-isolation advocacy. Operating with a new motto "an open society can not be built in and through isolation", the coalition's international efforts now promote all forms of interactions and engagement with Burma.

Mandalay-born Dr Zarni, founder of the The Free Burma coalition, feels that the the ‘Free Burma’ campaign has become another ‘Free Tibet’ and warns that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy model that will deal with Burma the way it dealt with other regimes such as Apartheid in South Africa.

As the West withdrew from Burma, vacancies were quickly filled by Asian investors (mainly China and India) - which Dr Zarni believes has made this boycott entirely irrelevant in terms of its ability to influence domestic developments.

Those who oppose the boycott might argue that the military does not need funds from the West, and would rather go without Western onlookers that could potentially witness the brutalities of their regime. They could also argue that breaking the isolation would provide employment and bring much needed revenue to the people (providing military owned venues are avoided) as it is one of the few sources that is accessible to the ordinary locals.

However, international tourism can be seen as a stamp of approval, and although there are many other countries with similarly dubious regimes that are still on the tourist map (such as China), Burma is an exception in that we would weaken Aung San Suu Kyi’s influence even more by undermining her, and our own governments’ efforts by ignoring their requests and advice.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair explained in a message of support to the ‘I’m not going’ campaign launched February 2005;“We are actively working with our European and international partners, as well as through the United Nations and the International Labour Organisation, to press the regime to end the appalling human rights violations and to engage in a genuine process of national reconciliation”.

He continued “..Together with our partners in Europe, the British government imposes a series of measures against those responsible for these crimes. For as long as they continue, I would urge anyone who may be thinking of visiting Burma on holiday to consider carefully whether by their actions they are helping to support the regime and prolong such dreadful abuses”.

Our view
Whether or not to travel to Burma is a very difficult and highly contested subject. We accept that there are different views on the issue and that the situation is continually changing, but on balance our view is that people should not travel to Burma (Myanmar).

Forced labour was used to ready tourist-related sights and services, and the areas that can be travelled to are tightly controlled by the military - particularly avoiding areas inhabited by minority groups and limiting contact with Burmese people.

Even if one were to travel in Burma in the most ethical way and use local accommodation, buy directly from craftspeople and interact with locals, it is impossible to visit the country without some of the money going to the military junta in the form of taxes on purchases, visas and departure fees. Furthermore, democratically-elected Aung San Suu Kyi has asked tourists to stay away from Burma and we feel this is a wish that should be respected, which is why you won’t find any Burma trips on Responsible Travel.

Your vote results

of you voted YES - we should travel to Burma
72% of you voted NO - we should not travel to Burma
Further reading
  • Our guide to responsible tourism in Burma
  • The Burma Campaign UK
  • BBC's Burma Country Profile

  • By Iris Knoop, Responsible Travel (updated October 2015)
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