Boycott the boycotters: get that flight to Burma

By Cath Urquhart (THE TIMES, 05/10/07):

At a clandestine theatre show in Mandalay, banned by the Burmese Government, three brave comedians performed skits and dances in English to a small group of backpackers. One of them, Par Par Lay, had just been released from a seven-year prison sentence imposed for telling an anti-government joke.

I asked fellow performer Lu Maw if I could write about the show, or would it get them into trouble? “We want tourists to come and spread the word,” he said. “Take our photograph and put it on the internet! Foreigners are our protection.” Par Par Lay said he was released 18 months early because foreign visitors had publicised his plight.

That was six years ago, when I travelled through Burma as a tourist, marvelling at the beauty of its sights and the gentleness of its people. I found a country thirsty for news of the outside world, where locals – rather than being terrified to talk to me – would pursue me down the street to practise their English, and who would come up to me at Rangoon’s peerless Shwedagon Paya to thumb through my Lonely Planet guidebook.

None of them had heard of Aung San Suu Kyi’s plea for tourists to boycott Burma; all were shocked when I told them of it, for while she is revered, the people are desperate for the income tourism brings. And it’s not true that all tourist money goes to the regime. I stayed in locally run guesthouses where my money went directly to the owner.

Of course, no guesthouse owner wants a tourist boycott. And Western campaigners who support one are right to point out that the regime has behaved appallingly to its people for decades. But as a tense calm returns to the streets of Rangoon, the world’s attention will start to turn away from this beleaguered state, still gasping for the air of publicity. Few journalists managed to get into Burma to report on the troubles, and newsdesks may now think the story is fading. Prospective visitors will most likely have consigned Burma to the “maybe, someday” list. So the country will once again disappear below the radar of world opinion – which is exactly where the generals that run Burma wish it to be.

I hope that informed, responsible travellers do visit Burma. Not only is the country breathtaking, the people kind, the food sublime, but visitors can do something positive by making those small, daily contacts with locals, and coming home and telling others what they find.

The generals care nothing for world opinion – and a tourist boycott is the least of their concerns. But tourism at its best is about communication and the breaking down of cultural barriers. It doesn’t much bother the generals if we stay away, but it bothers Par Par Lay and his fellow countrymen a great deal.