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To go or not to go?

June 2000

The issue of whether to visit Myanmar or not seems to stir up more debate than for any other destination on the planet. Had you asked me my opinion three years ago, I too, would have jumped on the politically correct bandwagon of "Boycott Burma!". But not since my childhood had I been outside the western luxury of America and Europe. I was living a secure life with a roof over my head, a steady job, a belly full of food, and a government that afforded me the right to choose my own place on the political spectrum and the right to act in accordance with those beliefs.

So easy it is to be a liberal when you have so many advantages. So easy it is to demand isolation of a nation and people half a world a way which you really know nothing about. So easy it is to call for a boycott when your actions have no effect on your own personal convenience, let alone your livelihood. And so easy it is to go to bed at night feeling self-satisfied for your concern for the less fortunate in the world.

Boy, was I naive.

I have a fundamental problem with boycotts directed at an entire nation in response to undesirable actions on the part of the government. It has been proven time and time again that boycotts don't work. For longer than I've been alive, my country, the USA, has maintained an embargo on Cuba because we were not pleased with the actions of Fidel Castro. What has this accomplished? Other than exasperating Cuban poverty and guaranteeing a steady flow of refugees into Florida, I'm at a complete loss to come up with something. And how about Iraq? Oh, that evil Saddam Hussein. We'll show him, right? For an entire decade ol' Saddam has been as powerful as ever - meanwhile Iraq remains economically crippled, forced into deeper and deeper poverty because the west insists on punishing general populations for the behavior of their governments - an act that's not all that different from the very governments we claim to oppose, is it?

The most frequently cited reason for not visiting Myanmar is because Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the NLD, democratically elected a decade ago to lead the government of Burma, requests that we don't go. Her Burmese supporters, along with the politically correct crowd, continually regurgitate her comments on this issue when urging a travel boycott. Something doesn't add up here. They claim to support democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of choice, etc., right? So why do they pass judgment on those who choose to visit Myanmar? Because ASSK says so, is what they tell us. Personality cults frighten me. Imagine if you will, the entire population of the United States loyally following every word and obeying every request of Bill Clinton. Scary thought, isn't it? But according to the logic as he is the democratically elected leader of the United States we should faithfully do whatever he says.

Yes, over 80% of the vote went to the NLD, but that 80% vote was for a democratic government, it was not a vote to boycott the country in the event the NLD is prevented from forming a government. While we know over 80% of the population supported ASSK ten years ago, this does not allow us to assume that over 80% of the population supports a boycott - especially now, after ten years of a stalemate.

I felt very welcome during my three-week visit. While it's very difficult to know in such an oppressive society what people are really thinking, my impression is that the majority of Myanmar people would rather see us visit then not.

The next concern often cited as a reason for boycotting Myanmar is the use of slave labor, or 'volunteers' as they like to call them in Myanmar. This practice hasn't stopped. I saw the so-called 'volunteers' working on the roads (mostly teenage girls) and it's sickening.  But I *saw* it and I can tell you about it. What if nobody ever saw it? Do you think it would stop? Don't you think the reverse might happen? What do you think would happen if there was no chance of any foreigner observing one of these work crews in action?

The most difficult issue is the FEC's - the $300 (recently lowered to $200) in monopoly money independent travelers are forced to exchange hard currency for. Does this money automatically line the military government's pockets? Unfortunately, I am not an economist and cannot explain the intricacies of an FEC system. I would like to think that the Myanmar government has to support the FECs to issue them, which would in essence create a zero sum equation - you give the government cash, spend the FECs and the government reimburses the locals with hard currency. A nice theory, but certainly not so simple. Yes, you are handing over $300 to the government upon arrival, but somewhere those FECs have to be supported. I would welcome further *independent* information on this.

But I do know this much  - the FEC's exchange value floats freely on the market and they can be spent anywhere and exchanged almost anywhere. Five dollars in FECs spent on the street is the same to the recipient as five dollars in hard currency. If you want you can even swap your entire $300 in FECs right on the street for US dollars or kyats.

Ultimately, the decision to go to Myanmar, or Burma if you prefer, is yours and yours alone. While I think it's a wonderful country and I would encourage visiting it, I will not pass judgment over those who chose not to, so long as you pass no judgment on me. If you go, enjoy the trip, but be responsible. Spend your money locally. Don't talk. Listen. Learn. Come back and teach.

The fight for democracy won't succeed in an isolated vacuum. The world's collective memories are too short. If we bypass Myanmar as a tourist destination, it will only succeed in erasing Myanmar from our collective minds. The harsh reality is that the world just doesn't care that much about the country. The world has ignored far greater violations of human rights. Myanmar is irrelevant. It can be forgotten. Easily.

I don't for a moment believe that I have anything to teach the Myanmar people. They know far more about us then we know about them and as a result, they have everything to teach us. I suggest that Myanmar needs not only the continued actions of dissident groups but needs continued contact with the outside world - not for what we can teach them - but for what they can teach us. And if we visit - we won't forget. Visit Myanmar. Learn. Remember. Talk about it.


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All text and photographs 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.