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Burma - The Land of Fear

Burma, a country of around 50 million people is ruled by fear. A military machine of 400,000 soldiers denies a whole nation its most basic rights. Aung San Suu Kyi, pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate, symbolises the struggle of Burma's people to be free.

  • Introduction
  • Brief History
  • Human Rights
  • Ethnic Groups
  • Economy
  • Tourism
  • Aung San Suu Kyi

    Burma's military regime has since 1996 sought to attract international tourists to what is indeed one of the world's most diverse and beautiful lands. Yet large parts of Burma remain off-limits to tourists because of military operations, narcotics trafficking in border areas, and a contentious gas pipeline built across southern Burma. And many tourism-related projects have involved massive forced labor, arbitrary property seizures, compulsory relocations, and other human rights abuses.

    Why the ruling army junta, the State Peace and Development Council (known from 1988-1997 as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC), wants more tourists to come to Burma is no secret. The generals themselves declare that gaining hard currency is their prime motivation. They also hope that a large influx of international tourists will raise global respectability and credibility for a military dictatorship with one of the world's worst human rights records.

    Little-visited and relatively unspoiled by mass tourism, Burma is now promoted as a new and exotic holiday destination. Some people argue that increased tourism in Burma will open the country to liberalizing influences. But most visitors have scant opportunity to discover the realities of everyday life in Burma. Traveling between first-class hotels and tourist sights in air-conditioned comfort, they meet few ordinary Burmese. Even chance encounters are constrained by the people's fear of military intelligence agents, whose pervasive presence is a principal tool of the junta's harsh rule. The army's tight control keeps genuine interaction between Burmese and visitors to a minimum. Tourism profits rarely reach ordinary people. The army itself is a partner in many tourist ventures, and some hotel projects are suspected to be fronts for laundering profits from Burma's burgeoning heroin trade.

    Groups promoting democracy in Burma urge tourists to stay away from the country and boycott the junta's tourist drives. Many travel agents and tour operators have publicly declared that they will not book or operate tours to Burma. These efforts have apparently been effective; the occupancy rate at Burma's top hotels is under forty percent. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of Burma's democracy movement, agrees that tourists should not visit Burma until there is a restoration of democratic rule. "We think it is too early for either tourists or investment or aid to come pouring into Burma," she told visitors to her Rangoon residence in November 1995. "We would like to see that these things are conditional on genuine progress towards democratization." In 2002 Aung San Suu Kyi reiterated her call for a tourism boycott. In an interview with the BBC, she said: ""Our policy with regard to tourism has not changed, which is say that we have not yet come to the point where we encourage people to come to Burma as tourists."

    Large-scale forced labor was reported on several major tourist development projects, including the rebuilding of the moat surrounding the Golden Palace in Mandalay, the construction of a new dam at scenic Inle Lake in Southern Shan State, the laying of a railway line near Pagan's temple complex, and the building or upgrading of airports around the country to accommodate passenger jets for tour groups. The United Nations and human rights organizations have documented the harsh conditions and often brutal treatment that accompany forced labor in Burma today. The junta's efforts to attract tourists "is responsible for a lot of forced labor," Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has observed, ". . . for building up facades that will look impressive for the tourists." A 1998 International Labour Organization report provides evidence of forced labor on tourism development projects and goes on to conclude, "There is abundant evidence…showing the pervasive use of forced labour imposed on the civilian population throughout [Burma] by the authorities and the military…"

    In Mandalay and other cities tens of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes without compensation to make areas more attractive to tourists. Other property has been arbitrarily seized to build new hotels or tourist facilities.

    There are also practical reasons for tourists to think twice before visiting Burma. Because of the country's instability, many travel insurance policies specifically exclude Burma from any coverage. And the country's medical infrastructure has all but collapsed. Many people concerned for the Burmese peoples' rights are choosing to postpone their visits to the country. Other people concerned for their own health and welfare have decided to do the same.

    Click here for more information on the Tourism Campaign