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A Tourist's Paradox

While a military junta rules Burma, can you visit this Buddhist nation and still be an ethical yogi?

By Jeff Greenwald


The least ambiguous problem with tourism manifests itself right after a visitor's arrival. All foreign visitors (except pilgrims entering on rare "spiritual visas") are expected to change $200 in U.S. currency at the government bank. In return, they are given 200 units of "Foreign Exchange Certificates," Monopoly-like money distinct from the Burmese kyat. These U.S. dollars allow Myanmar's military regime to buy weapons and ammunition--which, according to reports published by the Free Burma Coalition and Burma Campaign UK, are used to uproot ethnic minorities and rape, torture, and imprison Burmese citizens.

Another facet of the tourist's paradox is palpable in Mandalay, Burma's vibrant precolonial capital and still the country's cultural and spiritual center. Halfway down one of Mandalay's rustic lanes, a large, colorful sign announces the city's most notorious guerrilla theater. This is the home and stage of the Moustache Brothers, a troupe of three comedians who practice a-nyeint pwe, a uniquely Burmese type of vaudeville that includes skits, stand-up comedy, music, and dance.

Outrageous and irreverent, the "Brothers"--Par Par Lay, Lu Maw, and Lu Zaw--act as though they have nothing to fear from Myanmar's regime. "We have someone right outside the front door," Zaw confides to the audience at the beginning of an evening show. "If the secret police come, he'll whistle. We run out the back--and the police arrest the tourists!"

In fact, two of the brothers, Lay and Zaw, were arrested after performing publicly outside Suu Kyi's home in 1996. They were sentenced to seven years' hard labor. Fed nothing but rice water, they were forced to crush stones and build roads. At night, they slept in chains; Lay was maimed by his shackles.

In 1997 and 1998, a group of politically active comedians in Hollywood and the United Kingdom--including Rob Reiner, Ted Danson, Eddie Izzard, and Hugh Laurie--learned of Lay's and Zaw's imprisonment and publicized their plight. The artists were released two years early, in July 2001.

Though a longtime friend of The Lady, Lu Maw disagrees with her policy. "Aung San Suu Kyi says that tourists should not come to Burma. From a political point, maybe she is right. But not from our side. Tourism protects our family," he says, leaning close, "because the government knows that the world will find out if the Moustache Brothers are arrested again. My brothers and I are alive because of the tourists."

"Now We Are Nowhere"

The tourist presence notwithstanding, Burma's condition has deteriorated steadily since 1996. Forced labor and relocation are still common, rape is used as a weapon of terror, and human rights groups report the "ethnic cleansing" of hill tribes. Corruption is rampant. Some 1,800 prisoners of conscience, says Amnesty International, languish in Burmese jails, while thousands of activists who fled Rangoon and Mandalay after the 1988 massacre are still hiding in the malaria-ridden hills along the Thai border.

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