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As Long as We Remember...

August 31, 2009

The Tourist Boycott of Burma

Tom McLaughlin

[Editor’s Note: This is the fourth of six reports on Tom McLaughlin’s recent trip to Burma, officially the Union of Myanmar, a nation controlled by its military.]


Imagine the generals who run Burma as the head of a spoiled, meat-red octopus with vomit green eyes. Imagine tentacles with huge white suckers strangling any form of democracy as its army. Imagine silk black threads running off the tentacles forming a web, hiding, listening and reporting back, the secret police. All three parts of this hideous hydra need money, lots of money, to stay alive.


When I visited the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok to obtain a visa, I paid a $35 fee. To walk most of the popular archeological sites, the pagodas and ancient palaces, another $15 is collected. To exit the country at the airport immigration office, $10 is required. During my visit, the government collected $60 from me.


The octopus, a huge money-hungry organism, owns or has substantial interest in hotels, restaurants and jewelry concerns frequented by tourists. To sort out who owns what, or if the government has an investment, means untangling the web of silk threads that lead back to the tentacles and then to the generals. An impossible and very dangerous investigation.


In most countries, minus the graft and corruption, the $60 in taxes I paid, plus the profits from the real estate investments, would go to schools, hospitals, roads, electrical power plants, rural health services for the people. Medicines purchased, doctors sent abroad to be trained, free university for the proven highly intelligent and travel abroad for scholars would be funded from taxes paid by visitors. Many resorts in America have a hotel/motel tax attached to room rents.


In Burma, the money goes to the octopus. The $60 – and returns from investments – are divided to pay the generals, the soldiers and the spooks who spy on their own people.

Dollars are required for the purchase of machine guns, tanks, rifles, pistols, housing, uniforms, material required by the military. Nobody outside Burma will accept the worthless currency – the kyats (pronounced jets), therefore the government demands all these fees be paid in U.S. dollars.


In an effort to stop this income, many world organizations and Nobel Prize winner and imprisoned Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi have urged tourists not to visit Burma. Cutting off the money from this particular revenue stream, they implore, would weaken the government.


I talked to a business woman who owns a restaurant. Her company has suffered greatly during the past three years. In 2007, the peaceful demonstration by praying Monks was halted by the troops who murdered thirty-one with machine gun and rifle fire. Many more were likely killed and wounded. In 2008, at the height of the tourist season, Bangkok airport was closed for peaceful revolution in Thailand. Flights to Rangoon must originate in Bangkok. A typhoon, also called a Naga, swept the country flooding her business to the ceiling, necessitating a rebuild, replacement of appliances and furniture.


Her business now employs two people, a waitress and a cook. During tourist season she could hire many more, helping to alleviate some of the poverty.


My hotel has at least 200 rooms. There were four of us staying there. Money is not available to refurbish, hire more people or help alleviate some of the unemployment problems. All across Burma, the disasters that have affected the business woman and the hotel owner has affected the entire industry.


While there, I purchased colorful postcards from a street vendor. I bought a dark blue t-shirt. Different foods from the street side kiosks were warily eaten. I bargained for jade at both the government gem museum and the wild, Casablanca-movie atmosphere gem market. I prayed in many beat up taxis. I hired a guide to explain the intricacies if the Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the wonders of the world. I walked into a grocery store and purchased a candy bar. I contributed money to the bowls held by red flowing robed Buddhist monks seeking their morning meal. A lost lens cap was replaced. I know I contributed more to the economy for the people than I did to the Octopus.


I also brought me; and many other tourists bring themselves. Here was a person from a country that called Secretary of State Hillary Clinton childish, among other things just a few days before. Here was a person defying the international tourist ban to visit them. Here was also an open, laughing and smiling person who was very glad to meet them. My honest display of love and affection, and I really, really meant it for what they had been through; and I believe it showed. So many said they were glad to see that I was there because very few Americans visit the country.


The visits by me and other tourists who defy bans show the people they are supported. It provides a psychological reassurance to keep the idea of change, whether it will be violent or peaceful, alive in the hearts and minds of the people. Just by being there I had – and will have – an effect, as witnessed by the numbers who told me they were glad I was there and thanked me for visiting their country.


Contributing monies that directly benefit the economic conditions of the country, and the knowledge others are violating the tourist ban to visit them, outweighs the minor contributions to the generals.


…life is good…and I am proud of me.


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