Burma at the Crossroads

Burma at the Crossroads

Long-shunned Myanmar has released dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. But, Christopher Cox asks, is that enough to bring travelers back?

The dawn comes up like a sepia-toned fantasy at the Pansea hotel, with birdsong filtering through the lush trees and the sun flaring on the timeworn teak floors. I half expect to find Somerset Maugham taking tea on the veranda of this restored 1902 Rangoon mansion. In Burma, the old Asia still endures.

But the unsettling realities of present-day Myanmar—the nation's official name since the xenophobic military regime tossed out the colonial gazetteer in 1989—lie just beyond my boutique lodgings. As sarong-clad passengers pack the antique buses and rickshaws, I hail a decrepit taxi to Scott Market, intent on lacquerware. Newspaper hawkers soon besiege me with days-old editions of the Bangkok Post bearing the headline suu kyi to test junta's nerve.

So Aung San Suu Kyi, the charismatic Nobel Peace Prize laureate, continues to bedevil the ruling generals of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). A quiet academic who returned here from England in 1988 to care for her ailing mother, Suu Kyi quickly assumed the political mantle of her late, venerated father, General Aung San, who'd wrested independence from the British after World War II and was assassinated in 1947, when she was just a toddler. In her first public speech, on August 26, 1988, Suu Kyi made an impassioned appeal for nonviolent reform in front of several hundred thousand people, repeatedly invoking the memory of her martyred father. The following month, the army killed at least 3,000 pro-democracy protesters; less than a year later, the junta placed Suu Kyi under house arrest for six years. It has persecuted her on and off since then.

Lately, however, the situation seems to be improving. Last May, Suu Kyi was unconditionally released from another lengthy confinement, along with hundreds of other political prisoners. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has reopened dozens of offices around Burma.

This heartening news makes me wonder: Is Suu Kyi's release the harbinger of broader reform or merely window dressing?Should tourists now consider this longtime human-rights pariah—Suu Kyi still supports the tourism boycott she spearheaded in 1995—an acceptable vacation destination?For post-September 11 travelers, awareness—not just a mindfulness of one's immediate surroundings but an appreciation of context and country—has become critical. And few places demand more engagement, or provoke more controversy, than Burma.


The golden land has fertile paddies, forests of teak, oil and gas fields, and the world's finest jade and rubies. But 40 years of mismanagement—first under the late Ne Win, who ruled with a mix of socialism and superstition, then the SPDC, which prefers heavy-handed oppression with its paranoia—have ruined Burma. The generals continue to ignore the results of the 1990 election, which the NLD won by a landslide; their brutal intransigence has earned economic sanctions and international condemnation.

Still, more than 100,000 travelers annually—everyone from budget-conscious backpackers to affluent seniors—have come anyway, for a variety of reasons: bargain handicrafts; terra incognita curiosity; another patch on their photojournalist-style vests. I understand the attraction. Eight years ago, while researching a book about Burma, I took the night train to Mandalay, witnessed sunrise across Lake Inle, cruised on an ancient steamer down the Irrawaddy River. But the locals I met privately despaired at the shabby condition of their country and its corrupt, repressive tyrants, who showed no inclination to cede power.

On my latest trip, as before, Burma feels like a Lariam-fueled dream, surreal and uneasy. Clocks run 30 minutes earlier than in neighboring Thailand, and nearly every major town and river has two names: the official handle dictated by the SPDC and a historic appellation. Many people invoke this alternate reality, which conjures a better, bygone time, as a quiet form of protest. Rangoon, they whisper, not Yangon. In this looking-glass world, bookstalls sell 1969 issues of Reader's Digest while I watch CNN in my hotel room.

Tourism proponents believe that a business-first approach has led the generals to lighten up. There are plenty of repressive countries, the logic goes, so why penalize Burma?Travelers put money in the pockets of ordinary Burmese; their presence also deters the government from repeating the horrific 1988 crackdowns.

"Burma has been isolated for so long that further isolation isn't going to help," says Kate Maxwell, a former custom-travel agent in New York who says she felt conflicted about booking clients to the police state. However, she adds, "people should not go just to check off Burma on the list of countries they've visited. They should go to be a witness, to interact, to show people how democracy can work."

Yvette Mahon, director of the London-based Burma Campaign U.K., doesn't deny the nation's extraordinary appeal. But she counsels continued avoidance. She says Burma still stands at the far end of the spectrum of human-rights violations; according to Amnesty International, more than 1,200 political prisoners remained incarcerated as of last November.

Moreover, what distinguishes Burma from other authoritarian nations is the scale of abuse connected to tourism development and its attendant infrastructure. In the early nineties the junta evicted civilians from their homes in Mandalay and Pagan to make way for luxury hotels built in anticipation of 1997's Visit Myanmar Year. Tens of thousands of corvée laborers, including children, were put to work building roads and laying railways. Visitors also provide the regime with hard currency—both directly, through the mandatory purchase of $200 in Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC), and indirectly, through numerous joint-venture businesses on the tourist circuit.

The boycott campaign, along with daunting visa paperwork, the FEC shakedown, restrictions on internal travel, and general post-September 11 insecurity, appear to have affected the modest tourist industry. Since 1999, when Burma counted nearly 290,000 visitors, foreign arrivals have steadily declined; between April 2001 and February 2002, barely 104,000 visitors came—about 1 percent of Thailand's annual total.

"The situation is not clear yet," says NLD spokesman U Lwin. "In spite of the big release from the prison, very important people are still there. Please let us have some time." The SPDC, he adds, "can make good propaganda that things are going smoothly in this country. It's up to you to decide."


It's Mister Smile (not his real name), a freelance Rangoon tour guide, who leads me beyond the lacquer curtain his government has draped over its problems. "Pay me what you like," he says, his grin revealing betel-stained teeth. "Just don't pay me in my currency. Or FEC's—the Monopoly money."

I like Mister Smile immediately. He takes me to a backroom money changer and a palmist, a Burmese pub and Shwedagon Pagoda. There we leave the crowds on the temple platform and descend the western steps to the site where Suu Kyi made her first speech. "I was here," Mister Smile whispers. "After an hour we ran. The police fired tear gas."

As we move around the capital, Mister Smile concludes nearly every explanation of the country formerly known as Burma with a sighing coda: "This is a problem." It's a problem that inflation runs at 20 percent annually. It's a problem that the SPDC allows drug lords to launder profits in luxury hotels and bus companies, that the education and health care systems have collapsed.

I pay him $15 and ask how ordinary people cope. "Do you know the story of the three monkeys?Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil," he responds with a shrug. "You can go home. We have to live here."


In Mandalay, a dusty, sprawling city that doesn't deserve its bewitching name, I'm met by a friend of Mister Smile, an NLD member I'll call Magic. We ride south in a borrowed car, past the town of Amarapura,and pay a $3 entrance fee to the Sagaing archaeological district, a cluster of stupas and monasteries nestled in the green hills along the western bank of the Irrawaddy River.

We never make the main summit, however. A plainclothes soldier accessorized with aviator shades and a cell phone sits at a roadblock, demanding an additional $2 for the "renovation committee of Sagaing Hill." Furious, Magic refuses to pay the bribe. We turn around and drive instead to another hilltop temple. After climbing to a deserted terrace, Magic—who has already done time for his political activities—feels free to speak. "The army—the money goes right into their pocket," he says quietly. "Not to my people."

The following evening, the Moustache Brothers theatrical troupe gives a pwe, a vaudeville-styleperformance, at its south Mandalay home, lampooning such small-minded corruption. Comic Lu Maw waves a traffic cop's hat at the 20 foreigners packed into the garage-sized space, calling it the donation box. His brother, U Par Par Lay, told a similarly mild joke at a 1996 show inside Suu Kyi's home. He spent the next five years in labor camps. At this performance, U Par Par Lay only dances, leaving the one-liners to Lu Maw.

The next morning I recognize several faces from the pwe aboard the government-owned tourist ferry to Pagan, the royal capital until Kublai Khan took it over in 1287. While everyone I speak with is aware of Suu Kyi's request for a travel boycott, not one regrets coming. "There will always be tourists," says Chantal Boisvert, 37, a Quebec social worker. "And I don't think the government will change for this [tourism] money. It has more to lose."

She may be right. Having ignored election results for more than a dozen years, expanded the army at the expense of basic services for its citizens, and cut deals with narco-traffickers to consolidate power in the fractious borderlands, the generals are not about to go gently. Especially not as long as Asian nations like China and Singapore continue to pursue constructive-engagement policies to get at Burma's still-abundant natural resources.

Boycott or no, the SPDC wagers that tens of thousands of travelers won't wait to see wonders like Pagan, where more than 2,000 ancient temples and shrines erupt from a plain along a broad bend in the Irrawaddy. The place and its people are just too enchanting.


My final evening in Pagan, I ride a clunky Chinese bicycle to Shwesandaw Pagoda and climb to the topmost terrace of the whitewashed, 1,000-year-old stupa. Hundreds of other travelers have already assembled to view the sunset; another dozen or so drift overhead in hot-air balloons. As the sun begins to plummet behind the hills, burnishing the towers of sandstone, red brick, and gilt, I think about what Magic told me a few days before.

"Stay away," he said. "Most of the money goes to the government's pockets. I can always find another job. I can drive a taxi." I nodded. I wanted to come back; I just didn't know when. This, as Mister Smile would say, is a problem.


Burma isn't for everyone. Before booking a trip, consult the Web sites of the Burma Campaign U.K. (www. burmacampaign.org.uk), the New York-based Burma Project (www.soros.org/burma), and Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com). The U.S. State Department (www.state.gov) releases an annual human rights report. If you do go, consider taking steps to reduce the money the government will receive (beyond the $200 per person required on entry). Many package trips are affiliated with the state-run Myanmar Travels & Tours; New York custom outfitter Absolute Asia (800/736-8187; www.absoluteasia.com) makes a conscious effort to work with private tour companies instead. Besides hotels owned in whole or in part by the government, there are guesthouses and private hotels, such as the French-run Pansea Yangon (35 Taw Win Rd., Yangon; 95-1/229-860; www.pansea.com; doubles from $130) and the venerable Strand Hotel (92 Strand Rd., Yangon; 95-1/243-377; www.ghmhotels.com; doubles from $415), owned by a Singapore-based group. You can buy crafts, such as lacquerware, at their source or in the market rather than in government stores. If you tip in U.S. dollars, many Burmese will keep the currency against inflation of the kyat. Lastly, the magazines and paperbacks you read in-flight make great gifts in news-starved Burma.

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