March 1, 1999

In an interview with the Burma Campaign UK, Burma’s democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi calls on tourists to stay away from Burma. She also criticises tour operators who claim tourists assist the cause of democracy by exposing Burmese people to new ideas about freedom and democracy: “That’s so patronising! Burmese people know their own problems better than anyone else. They know what they want – they want democracy – and many have died for it. To suggest that there’s anything new that tourists can teach the people of Burma about their own situation is not simply patronising – it’s also racist.”
In recent months there has been renewed interest in Burma within the tourism industry. In November 1998 the Burma Campaign UK persuaded ITV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ not to go ahead with a planned feature on the Orient Express’ Irrawaddy luxury boat tour. It is believed that there are around 50 British tour operators currently working in Burma. These include Orient Express, Noble Caledonia Ltd and Kuoni. Travel agents including Thomas Cook sell tours to Burma run by other tour operators.
In her first major statement on tourism since the military regime’s failed ‘Visit Myanmar (Burma) Year 1996’ Aung San Suu Kyi says: “I still think that people should not come to Burma. Because the bulk of the money from tourism goes straight into the pockets of the generals. And not only that, it’s a form of moral support for them because it makes the military authorities think that the international community is not opposed to the human rights violations which they are committing all the time. They seem to look on the influx of tourists as proof that their actions are accepted by the world.”
Aung San Suu Kyi added that operators promoting tours to Burma should look to their consciences and admit that their main agenda is to make a profit. This is a clear counter to the argument that tour operators are most concerned with helping the people of Burma and furthering the cause of democracy.
Yvette Mahon, a Director of The Burma Campaign UK says: “The tourist industry in Burma is inextricably linked with widespread and systematic human rights abuse. Millions of men, women and children have been forced to build roads, railways and other tourist infrastructure while the regime reaps the rich rewards of the tourist dollars that come in. Tourism in Burma, simply put, is about having pleasure as a consequence of others’ pain.”
Notes to Editors
1. Yvette Mahon and John Jackson met with Aung San Suu Kyi at her Party Headquarters in Rangoon – the notes and tapes were smuggled out of Burma in February.
2. The Burma Campaign UK (formerly the Burma Action Group UK) has copies of the publication ‘Burma: the Alternative Guide’ available free from the office. The guide explores the relationship between mass human rights abuses and the development of tourism in Burma.
3. Aung San Suu Kyi’s Party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide election victory in 1990 – gaining 82% of the seats. Power has never been transferred.
5. Between April and December 1997 there was 4,956 British visitors to Burma.

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