See Mo' Evil

A traveler's best response to an oppressive regime? Go check it out.

BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Myanmar’s Shew Dagaon Pagoda     Photo: Corbis

What do you think?

Share Your Opinion. Is it immoral to travel to a human-rights-violating country with an oppressive regime?

Normally, I wouldn't pick a fight with the world's only incarcerated Nobel Peace Prize winner, but I think Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi should stop urging tourists to avoid her country, which she does to prevent money from flowing to the despots who run it.

There's no denying that Myanmar (formerly Burma) is in bad hands: Suu Kyi has been under house arrest in Rangoon on and off since 1989. In 1990, her national election victory was ignored by the military-backed State Peace and Development Council. Meanwhile, General Than Shwe's brutal junta has destroyed 3,000 villages, displaced 1.5 million refugees, and conscripted 70,000 child soldiers. Still, Suu Kyi's call for an ongoing travel boycott seems misguided. It isn't depriving the SPDC of vital foreign cash, like she claims. It's depriving her democratic movement of potential supporters all over the globe.

Travel boycotts have long been used to deny funds and legitimacy to oppressive regimes, from apart­heid-era South Africa to Castro's Cuba. On paper, economic boycotts make sense, but their effect is outweighed by the benefits of having travelers take a look for themselves. Whether the setting is Myanmar or Tibet, the best way to combat oppression is to become an eyewitness. Once you've done that, it's impossible not to share what you've seen.

I learned this in 1984, when my dad, a Lutheran minister, returned from Nicaragua, where he'd been monitoring the situation between the U.S.-backed contras and the socialist Sandinista government. My adolescent brain couldn't grasp the complicated dynamics of a civil war. But I could understand the terrifying moment when he put his head in his hands and sobbed as he told me how he'd seen entire campesino families crammed into five-by-seven-foot cubicles, their homes while working on multinational banana plantations. The politics of that situation are different from what's happening in Myanmar, but the suffering isn't. A year after his trip, my dad visited churches around Minnesota and gathered a dozen people to return with him to Latin America.

This lesson about the transformative power of travel has stayed with me as I've journeyed through Colombia, Cuba, Guatemala, Venezuela, Bhutan, and other troubled places. Along the way I've made contributions where I thought they'd make a difference. When I go to Myanmar, that means watching very closely where my money goes.

Suu Kyi has argued that my visa fees would give the government hard currency, and that the hotels where I'd stay are owned by corrupt officials. She's right about who's getting most of the money, but she's overlooking the relative amounts involved. Last year, 248,000 tourists spent roughly $150 million in Myanmar. That's equivalent to roughly half of the country's gem trade, which a Human Rights Watch report placed at $297 million last year. And it's nothing compared with the $2.2 billion the regime earned in 2006 on natural-gas deals with neighboring Thailand, which run counter to American and European Union isolation policies.

With Myanmar's government focused on big-money resource deals, it's putting less energy into skimming tourist cash from its citizens. John Sugnet, vice president of sales and marketing for San Francisco-based Geographic Expeditions, says that according to his sources inside the country, 80 percent of the money his clients spend in Myanmar now goes to local people. At the same time, it's becoming easier to exchange dollars, which means tourists don't always have to use highly inflated and regulated currency certificates.

But visiting the world's dictatorships isn't just about money. It's about seeing-something boycott backers claim won't happen even if you do go. "The problem is that people who travel only in the golden triangle of Rangoon, Mandalay, and Inle Lake come out and say, 'It doesn't seem so bad,'" says Jeremy Woodrum, director of the nonprofit U.S. Campaign for Burma. "The regime restrains people from seeing the reality."

There are two problems with that argument. First, if Americans had been in Rangoon last September, the reality would have been clear. Government soldiers killed 31 protesters-most of them pacifist Buddhist monks-who were marching against a fuel-price hike. The SPDC shut down the country's Internet access during the violence, drastically limiting news reports. That level of secrecy isn't possible with a thriving tourism industry. And those tourists don't stay quiet once they get home. Second, smart travelers go beyond the government-fabricated facade. Take, for example, Hal Nathan, president of the Foundation for the People of Burma. After his first visit to Myanmar, in 1995, the former economist set up his California-based nonprofit. Twenty-one trips later, Nathan has coached hundreds of travelers on how to see the country responsibly.

"There's a good way and a not-so-good way to travel to Burma," says Nathan. "The best way is to become educated before you go, reach out to people once you're there, and never, ever do anything political."

Nathan is right. The only thing worse than allowing money to go to an evil regime is allowing an evil regime to exploit its citizens behind a veil of obscurity.

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