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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

Meanwhile, oil and natural-gas companies continue pumping money into the regime, and package tours from Europe and America lend support and credibility to the new order. Yet there remains a crazy faith among some Burmese that liberation will come from outside: from America or, ironically, China.

But change, as meditator Mark Lennon says, must come from within. In recent years, many Burmese have hoped that Suu Kyi would take a more proactive role and begin a movement of Gandhian civil disobedience. It seems hard to believe after exchanging smiles with the peaceful faces at Shwedagon Paya and the Sagaing monasteries, but many Burmese feel that a popular uprising is possible. That action may seem even more urgent today, as the regime digs in its heels. "We are sitting on a powder keg," the Burmese activist in Rangoon insists. "It can explode at any time."

May All Beings Be Free

When I went to Burma for this assignment early this year, Suu Kyi was free to receive visitors, travel around the country, and address huge crowds of pro-democracy supporters. I made arrangements to interview her by phone and record her most current position about travel to Burma.

Just a few weeks later, her fortunes changed completely. On May 30, as Suu Kyi left a rally near Monya (about 375 miles north of Rangoon), her motorcade was attacked by an army of thugs wielding bamboo spikes, catapults, and guns. According to eyewitnesses, her friends and colleagues were beaten, stabbed, and shot, and up to a hundred people died in the attack. To many observers, the regime's claim that Suu Kyi's followers instigated the incident was outrageous.

Suu Kyi was subsequently thrown back into prison, where she remains (as of our August press date) in what Razali Ismail, a United Nations special envoy who visited her there, called "absolutely deplorable" conditions. Later, the regime banned all National League for Democracy offices from the country, and several thousand Mandalay shops with suspected links to the democracy movement were closed.

Britain's response to these events was swift and severe. The British government contacted all U.K. travel organizations with links to Burma and asked them "not to allow, encourage, or participate in tourism to Burma." And in July, the U.S. Congress enacted a three-year ban on importing goods from Burma.

These developments do not change the essential arguments in this story. But they certainly make a compelling case for a complete halt to all trade with the regime--including organized tourism. Today, all freedom-loving people are faced with a choice to either continue traveling to Burma or remove any aid to the military junta, rally behind Burma's pro-democracy movement, and give Suu Kyi and her followers the support they require to depose their dictatorial rulers.

Contributing Editor Jeff Greenwald is founder and executive director of Ethical Traveler (, a nonprofit alliance dedicated to educating about the social and environmental impacts of travel decisions.

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