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A Tourist’s Paradox

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The 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.”

Subsequently, some companies, like Pepsi and Wal-Mart, voluntarily divested their interests in the country. A few states, like Massachusetts, enacted legislation forbidding trade with the junta. In April 2003, the 600-member American Apparel and Footwear Association called on the U.S. government to end imports of apparel and textiles from the country. But the American travel and tourism trade is still open for business there. Operators like Geographic Expeditions and Mountain Travel Sobek promote Burma as an upbeat, exotic destination.

For years, Burma remained the single Southeast Asian country I refused to visit. In 2002, though, the country’s situation appeared to soften. Suu Kyi was released from a second period of house arrest, and the generals agreed to let her travel throughout the country. A friend who had visited had actually seen her in public, addressing an adoring crowd outside a branch office of her National League for Democracy. Around the same time, there was a surge in the number of foreigners–people wary of visiting Indonesia, India, or Nepal–traveling to Burma. These included large tour groups, backpackers, independent travelers, and spiritual pilgrims arriving for meditation retreats.

Despite these developments, “The Lady” (as Suu Kyi is also known) held unflinchingly to her tourism boycott. I, however, found myself wavering. Was forbidding travel to Burma still a useful strategy? Or could she be clinging to an obsolete ideal?

Spiritual Tourism

The magnificent Shwedagon Paya, more than 300 feet high, pierces the skyline of Burma’s capital, Rangoon, like a great golden thorn. The stupa–which was built, according to legend, over a well containing eight hairs from the Buddha’s head–has drawn devotees for at least a thousand years. It is a radiant singularity, the spiritual center of Rangoon. You reach the paya after removing your shoes and ascending one of four broad stairways, each approaching from a cardinal-point direction.

The first impression is that the ostentatious pavilion–surrounded by shutterbug tourists, garishly painted shrines, and buddhas framed within flashing halos of LEDs–seems almost schlocky. But as the hot afternoon fades and the setting sun sets the spire aflame, magic and mystery pervade the air. Shwedagon becomes an oasis, far above the manic streets of the capital. The Burmese are a remarkably devout people; even the generals make a great show of their piety. This evening, and every evening, whole families sit in perfect stillness around the paya, absorbed in meditation. Bells ring; candles appear in the myriad niches.

I sit beside a convivial monk, watching a line of laughing volunteers sweep the paya’s marble plinth with broad, soft brooms. “They believe that by cleaning the floor,” the monk says, grinning, “they will come back next life with a better appearance.” I nod, aware of an itchy paradox: These are the most cheerful oppressed people in the world.

Indeed, Burma is awash in paradoxes. Among the most dramatic is the fact that trade sanctions, and to some degree the tourism boycott, have helped preserve the country’s traditional flavor. Most Burmese still wear longyis (saronglike garments) and sandals, rather than sneakers and T-shirts. There are no 7-Elevens, Coca-Cola signs, or McDonald’s. The streets are safe at night, and the people are astonishingly friendly and generous.

It’s easy to see why tourists, most of whom rarely trouble themselves with political concerns, are attracted to such a place. But the issue becomes a little more unsettling with spiritual tourists–Westerners who travel to Burma for meditation retreats and pilgrimages, but whose dollars benefit the junta. “These are precisely the people who should be most respectful of the boycott,” insists Burma expert and former Buddhist monk Alan Clements, who lived in Burma for eight years.

Ironically, this undiluted spiritual landscape–which radiates 2,500 years of profound Buddhist practice–is exactly what makes Burma so difficult for such people to resist. “This is the beating heart of Theravada Buddhism–the place that has preserved that tradition better than anywhere else on earth,” says Wes Nisker, a politically sensitive Buddhist teacher and writer (The Big Bang, the Buddha, and the Baby Boom, HarperSanFrancisco, 2003) with whom I explored the temples of Bagan. “It’s also the place that the contemporary Western styles of vipassana meditation come from. So if you really want to study with masters who are still doing the traditional, serious, stripped-down, get-off-the-wheel teaching, the only place they still exist–aside from a few Western teachers doing this in America–is here in Burma.”

Nisker, like nearly all the spiritual tourists I spoke with, believes that visiting Burma affirms for the local people the eternal value of their culture and forestalls the negative effects of globalization–a benefit that outweighs the few hundred dollars one might give to the government. “And if we stop coming,” he continues, “then all you have are the sightseeing tourists, who are supporting a very different part of the culture and economy.”

This view is shared by Mark Lennon, a vipassana practitioner who began his practice with S.N. Goenka in 1972 and recently brought a group of Westerners to a dharma center in Rangoon. Lennon is well aware of the boycott but doubts that isolating Burma will relieve the country’s suffering. “All over Burma, you meet people who know about vipassana–but the practice of meditation among lay people has almost disappeared,” he says. “Our idea was to have Western people see the sites particular to our tradition, but we also hoped that by bringing a large group of foreigners to Burma, we would show the Burmese how we value their culture. Even here, people look to America,” Lennon explains. “And if Americans are doing vipassana, why not the Burmese? I take Goenkaji’s view that for society to change, the people–in this case, the people running the country–have to change themselves.”

The Trouble with Going

The number of tourists entering Burma is clearly on the rise. One late afternoon in Bagan, the terraces of the 13th-century temple Mingalazedi are packed with foreigners zooming in on the setting sun. The morning calm of Inle Lake, in Shan state, is shattered by dozens of outboard motors, as tour groups are ferried to the floating market and “Jumping Cat” monastery. These groups are mainly French and German; Americans and the British are more mindful of the boycott (or less interested in Burma). And for now, the numbers remain modest: While Burma hosted an estimated 200,000 visitors in 2002, neighboring Thailand recorded a staggering 11 million.

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.

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.

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.