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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


A renowned educator based in Rangoon, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, summed things up in blunt terms. "We're in a terrible mess," he stated. "We don't have enough rice, inflation is out of control, and the educational system is shattered. People feel a degree of hopelessness, frustration, and despair as never before. When U Thant was secretary general of the United Nations [1961– 1971], we were a globally respected voice on the issues of decolonization and the nonaligned movement. Now we are nowhere. We are irrelevant."

Traveling the country, visitors rarely meet Burmese opposed to tourism, but it's a catch-22. Travelers can visit only very specific places in Burma--and those, by definition, are the places that benefit from tourism. The regime prohibits travel to areas where there are labor camps, prisons, relocated villages, or ethnic minorities at odds with the junta.

Though they keep a low profile, there are many politically sophisticated Burmese--inside and outside the country--who believe, like Suu Kyi, that tough sanctions and a total tourism boycott are the only things that will oust the generals. "Our policy with regard to tourism has not changed," The Lady has said. "Burma will be here for many years--so visit us later. Visiting us now is tantamount to condoning the regime."

"Maybe a few hundred thousand people will benefit from tourism," says a venerable Burmese activist based in Rangoon. "There are 45 million people in this country. We have to look out for all of them. That's why I'm against any kind of tourism. I have nothing against the people who come for the retreats, but I am against their coming here to Burma."

Prospects for Change

Resisting Burma--or deciding to visit--requires a degree of mindfulness and a clear personal interpretation of ahimsa. You might agree with Suu Kyi and decide that there are many wonderful places to travel to, many lovely places in which to meditate, and that it is unconscionable to support a totalitarian regime.

Or you might agree instead with the Moustache Brothers or a Dutch monk I met at a Sagaing monastery. "There will always be samsara [the world of illusion]," the monk said. "There will always be suffering, whether it is happening down the street or 2,500 miles away. But what we're doing here is vipassana. We are being quiet, and I don't think we are increasing anyone's suffering."

There is a strong sentiment, especially among Western Buddhists, that spiritual tourism is "above" the concerns expressed by Suu Kyi. Maybe so, or maybe this is simply a rationalization for their spiritual materialism. The bottom line is that Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize–winning Buddhist leader, has asked us not to visit until the military dictatorship engages in meaningful dialogue. So the question of whether or not to go is a true ethical dilemma--a choice between being in noble solidarity with Suu Kyi or flouting her directive in favor of a more personal agenda.

So what, realistically, are the prospects for Burma? As time goes by, they appear rather grim, for it seems more obvious than ever that the military is utterly disinterested in a dialogue with Suu Kyi.

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