A Tourist's ParadoxThe hills of Sagaing, right across the Ayeyarwady River some 10 miles southwest of Mandalay, look like an archetypal vision of Asia. Buddhist stupas rise amid thickly forested hillsides, their golden spires gleaming in the late afternoon light. Monks and nuns stroll the shaded lanes in red and pink robes; at sunrise; their chants evaporate with the fog. Climbing one of the serpentine stairways and gazing out over the landscape, you can imagine you have returned to the Burma of Kublai Khan or Rudyard Kipling--a golden land awash in riches, illuminated by the inimitable light of Asia.
But the Burma of today is an ambiguous place, where one person's dream is another's nightmare. Drinking tea at a quiet monastery in the Sagaing hills that welcomes Westerners for annual vipassana retreats, I struggled with the conflict that dogs every mindful visitor to the country called Myanmar by its rulers. It was a question of ahimsa, the yogic directive of "nonharming." Does my presence here help the Burmese people or contribute to their continued oppression? Is it appropriate to sightsee, relax, or even study meditation in Burma, knowing that a portion of the money I'm spending here goes to support a brutal dictatorship?
To Visit or Not to Visit
Known as the "golden land" by Western adventurers who visited five centuries ago, Burma was once a great Buddhist center, a treasury of teak and gems, and Southeast Asia's largest exporter of rice. All of this changed in the years following World War II, when a popular leader named Bogyoke Aung San was assassinated and a despotic general named Ne Win took his place. For the next half century, the country was dragged down the road to an exploitative and ineffectual socialism.
The country's military rulers--who slaughtered more than 3,000 demonstrators during a peaceful uprising in 1988--proclaimed 1996 "Visit Myanmar Year." Their goal: to lure half a million visitors annually to the country and attract some of the tourist dollars lavished on neighboring Thailand.
To make its impoverished country more attractive, the government began building luxury hotels, roads, golf courses, and airports. Much of this work was done by forced labor, often at gunpoint. Men, women, and children were pulled from their villages and thrust onto construction sites. Clearing the vast moat around one potential tourist magnet--Mandalay Palace--required 20,000 laborers alone, according to BurmaNet News. The strategy seemed to work: The junta, says Burma Campaign UK, claims to earn $100 million a year from tourism. And 40 percent of its budget is spent on the military.
Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced "ong sahn soo chee"), the legally elected leader of the country--while under house arrest in 1990, she won a landslide victory that the junta refused to recognize--responded to "Visit Myanmar Year" by calling for a tourism boycott. Her goal was to deny the military regime the profits of tourism and diminish their credibility in the eyes of the free world. In July 1996, I wrote an op-ed piece that was published in the Washington Post, supporting her position. "Let us turn our backs on Myanmar's despotic regime," I wrote, "and demonstrate our solidarity with Aung San Suu Kyi's pro-democracy movement by voting with our wings."