A tentative opening for conscientious visitors
Aung San Suu Kyi now says a cautious approach to tourism could benefit Burma’s citizens
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