A ten­ta­tive open­ing for con­sci­en­tious vis­i­tors

Aung San Suu Kyi now says a cau­tious ap­proach to tourism could ben­e­fit Burma’s cit­i­zens

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - CATHER­INE MAR­SHALL EL­IZ­A­BETH HUGHES

IN the Cam­bo­dian vil­lage of Old Piek Snaing, the women hack away at a moun­tain of pump­kins, re­mov­ing their skins with swift, deft blows. I try to em­u­late them, but the skin comes away in one long rib­bon, tak­ing with it a chunk of pre­cious pump­kin flesh.

A woman sitting on her haunches looks at me aghast, ar­tic­u­lat­ing her dis­be­lief in rapid-fire Kh­mer. I ges­ture my apolo­gies, and af­ter a long, hushed mo­ment, she re­sponds with for­give­ness.

A piece of pump­kin is in­valu­able in this vil­lage where the Aus­tralian foun­da­tion SeeBeyondBorders sup­ports a nu­tri­tion scheme for 300 chil­dren.

In a sti­fling lean-to kitchen, vil­lage women and vol­un­teers stir soup in caul­drons sus­pended over wood fires. Hy­giene isn’t a pri­or­ity here: blunt knives are coated in mud from the pump­kin skins, im­ple­ments are washed in basins of wa­ter that stew in the mid­day sun. But in the im­pov­er­ished coun­try­side of Cam­bo­dia, this ini­tia­tive rep­re­sents progress.

For most of the vol­un­teers, this is their day off. They are Aus­tralian teach­ers who’ve come here with SeeBeyondBorders to teach the teach­ers, run­ning in­ten­sive ed­u­ca­tional work­shops in Bat­tam­bang and Siem Reap. It’s quite some­thing to take on an ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem still re­build­ing it­self af­ter crum­bling dur­ing the bru­tal reign of Pol Pot in the 1970s, but this shar­ing of skills pro­vides both moral and prac­ti­cal sup­port for a new gen­er­a­tion of teach­ers.

The founders of SeeBeyondBorders, Sydneysiders Ed and Kate Shut­tle­worth, be­lieve change be­gins with ed­u­ca­tion, but their foun­da­tion sup­ports a range of com­ple­men­tary, es­tab­lished projects that nur­ture the growth of a new so­ci­ety.

These in­clude health and nu­tri­tion schemes, con­struc­tion and gar­den­ing projects, and en­tre­pre­neur­ial as­sis­tance for Cam­bo­di­ans dis­abled by land­mines and clus­ter mu­ni­tions.

The foun­da­tion’s im­mer­sion trips of­fer par­tic­i­pants the op­por­tu­nity to share their skills and labour, whether teach­ers or not, and learn their own lessons from the Cam­bo­di­ans they en­counter.

For those who pre­fer to help from the side­lines — or wish to con­tinue con­tribut­ing once they are home — SeeBeyondBorders fa­cil­i­tates cor­po­rate spon­sor­ship, on­line fundrais­ing and vol­un­teer­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties based in Aus­tralia.

Such sup­port ensures the pro­lif­er­a­tion of ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties in a so­ci­ety where high-school re­ten­tion rates are wor­ry­ingly low.

These have in­cluded the re­fur­bish­ment of minischools that ser­vice re­mote, un­der-re­sourced com­mu­ni­ties, and the con­struc­tion of a school build­ing in Phnom Kpuah, a vil­lage where 77 stu­dents were be­ing taught in a A THUMP­ING 14 mil­lion tourists visit Thai­land each year. But last year fewer than 300,000 vis­i­tors went to neigh­bour­ing Burma, which also has white-sand beaches, ex­tra­or­di­nary Bud­dhist tem­ples and eye-pop­ping nat­u­ral scenery. How­ever, this tourism iso­la­tion looks set to change with a new and semi-wel­com­ing tourism pol­icy from No­bel lau­re­ate Aung San Suu Kyi’s Na­tional League for Democ­racy.

Be­cause it has been a com­par­a­tively un­pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion, Burma has dodged many of the ills of mod­ern tourism. The tourist crowds are smaller and there are fewer ag­gres­sive hawk­ers and con-mer­chants keen for you to buy bar­gain gems; the eye is not bom­barded with neon ad­ver­tis­ing.

Burma, though, is trou­bled. Of­fi­cially called Myan­mar, the nation has strug­gled un­der the decades-long rule of despotic gen­er­als. These brass-hat au­to­crats have trans­formed a once-wealthy coun­try into a place where too many kids go hun­gry. Power was trans­ferred from the mil­i­tary regime to a nom­i­nally civil­ian gov­ern­ment ear­lier this year, but Burma is still firmly un­der the thumb of the armed forces.

Re­tired or serv­ing sol­diers dom­i­nate the new par­lia­ment and mil­i­tary cronies dom­i­nate the econ­omy. The gen­er­als locked up Suu Kyi for many years but she was re­leased last Novem­ber in a flurry of pub­lic­ity fol­low­ing the first elec­tions in 20 years.

The regime has also j ailed about 2100 po­lit­i­cal prisoners for patently ridicu­lous in­frac­tions, such as mak­ing a speech or send­ing some footage over­seas. The gen­er­als have waged war against var­i­ous eth­nic mi­nori­ties, in­clud­ing the Karen, the Kachin and the Shan. The smell of the mil­i­tary is still per­va­sive in Burma, even af­ter the elec­tions (which were roundly con­demned as a sham by many ob­servers).

Un­der­stand­ably, many wouldbe vis­i­tors have de­cided that Burma is just too hard, par­tic­u­larly since Suu Kyi had asked peo­ple not to visit. Her NLD launched a tourism boy­cott in 1996, mostly to un­der­mine the gen­er­als’ Visit Myan­mar cam­paign that year. But since her re­lease from house ar­rest, Suu Kyi has been cau­tiously pos­i­tive about the pos­si­ble ben­e­fits of some tourism.

Cruises and pack­age tours should not be en­cour­aged, she told the Associated Press, but ‘‘in­di­vid­u­als com­ing in to see, to study the sit­u­a­tion in the coun­try might be a good idea’’.

Many sup­port­ers of tourism be­lieve vis­i­tors will bring in much- needed cash to Burma and eye­wit­nesses can make a noise about po­ten­tial in­stances of op­pres­sion. The NLD cen­tral ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee’s new tourism pol­icy ten­ta­tively wel­comes vis­i­tors, with some pro­vi­sos.

‘‘While tourism could en­hance the eco­nomic life of the [Burmese] by cre­at­ing new jobs, bring­ing in hard cur­rency and rais­ing the stan­dard of liv­ing, it could also have neg­a­tive con­se­quences if en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues are ig­nored and the meet­ing of dif­fer­ent cul­tures and so­cial val­ues are not ap­proached with suf­fi­cient tiv­ity,’’ the pol­icy de­clares.

It notes that in the past Burmese peo­ple have been dis­placed to make way for ho­tels and other fa­cil­i­ties; some con­struc­tion projects have used forced labour; sex tourism is ‘‘an ob­vi­ous evil’’; and in some cases chil­dren have been trans­formed into ha­bit­ual beg­gars by the thought­less dis­tri­bu­tion of money and presents.

Forests have been cleared to build ho­tels, restau­rants, re­sorts and golf cour­ses, and un­reg­u­lated waste-wa­ter has had a dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect in some parts of the coun­try. Pol­lu­tion has ren­dered the wa­ter of Inle Lake un­drink­able, the pol­icy says. ‘‘Many of the big­ger tourism-re­lated busi­nesses are still owned by mem­bers of the fam­i­lies of those in gov­ern­ment or their cronies; the claim that a large per­cent­age of the in­dus­try is in pri­vate rather than in gov­ern­ment hands over­looks the crony fac­tor,’’ it points out.

Try­ing to make sure that your cash doesn’t end up with the

sensi- ‘‘crony fac­tor’’ isn’t al­to­gether easy. The Rough Guides or­gan­i­sa­tion has long avoided pub­lish­ing a guide to Burma be­cause Suu Kyi was locked up and be­cause tourism sup­ported the mil­i­tary regime.

Even though she is free, it’s too soon for a Rough Guide to Burma, the pub­lish­ers point out, adding that ‘‘such a guide would re­ally de­pend upon sus­tained im­prove­ments in the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion as well as on a proven and ro­bust travel in­fra­struc­ture’’.

Lonely Planet pub­lishes a guide to Myan­mar (Burma) that in­cludes a sec­tion ti­tled Should You Go?, which out­lines the ar­gu­ments and es­sen­tially leaves it to the con­science of each trav­eller.

More im­por­tant, now the boy­cott has been lifted and Suu Kyi has is­sued a ten­ta­tive wel­come, is the guide’s in­for­ma­tion on who owns what in the Burma tourism hi­er­ar­chy.

Ob­vi­ously, tourists can’t avoid in­ject­ing some cash di­rectly into gov­ern­ment cof­fers, such as visa fees, taxes and cer­tain en­trance makeshift class­room be­neath their teacher’s house.

Back at Old Piek Snaing, lunch is be­ing served. The older chil­dren feed the ba­bies first, spoon­ing veg­etable soup into their mouths. I won­der with frus­tra­tion why it’s the NGOs and churches that al­ways end up car­ing for the weak. But Shut­tle­worth is philo­soph­i­cal.

‘‘We know peo­ple would rather spend money on them­selves than share it with their neigh­bour,’’ he says. ‘‘But we need to stand against that tide. The only thing any NGO or per­son has got at the end of the day is their own in­tegrity.’’

seebeyondborders.org fees — even, dispir­it­ingly, those for the Sh­wedagon Pagoda. But the listings pro­vide a lit­tle in­for­ma­tion on how to skip around the worst of­fend­ers.

Ac­cord­ing to the Lonely Planet guide, var­i­ous five-star ho­tels are in pri­vate non-crony hands. In Ran­goon they in­clude the Strand, the Savoy and the Gov­er­nor’s Res­i­dence. Air Ba­gan, it should be noted, is owned by the no­to­ri­ous regime crony Tay Za, who now also owns var­i­ous ho­tels, in­clud­ing the Ma­likha Lodge in Kachin state, as well as the Bal­loons Over Ba­gan ven­ture ( hav­ing re­port­edly forced out the Aus­tralian co-owner).

A spot of googling can shed light on who owns what.

And then vis­i­tors should be able to en­joy a guilt-free — or largely guilt-free — hol­i­day.

As for the gov­ern­ment-run Myan­mar Tourism Pro­mo­tion Board, its pro­mo­tional pro­pa­ganda sim­ply says: ‘ ‘ Above all, Myan­mar of­fers the warm­est wel­come in Asia.’’

Cather­ine Mar­shall skins pump­kin in a Cam­bo­dian vil­lage


Aung San Suu Kyi met Kevin Rudd ear­lier this month

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