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Burma: Easychair Ethics and the Diet Coke of Political Activism

October 30, 2009

frowning is one way to please help Burma

I’m thinking of going for a holiday in Burma. Situated smack bang in between Thailand and India yet with a tiny fraction of the tourists and a little bit rough around the edges, it should be just like Cuba before the Afro-Cuban All Stars ruined it for everyone. It might be my last chance to pretend to be an intrepid Victorian traveller. An opportunity to discover a place that is not already a major supporter of the Chinese economy, through mass importation of ‘genuine locally made’ souvenirs.  Yet this plan of mine has been met with the most astounding level of opprobrium. And not just from the usual leftie pinkos busy chaining themselves to various objects. No sir. I have been scorned even by the sort of people who wash their 4×4 with hoses in the middle of droughts and hunt small fury animals for recreation.  The sort of people whose interest in politics goes only as far as keeping track of which party will tax the capital gains on their beachfront holiday home the least.

And nor are we talking about the sort of mild condescension and eyebrow cocking that one is exposed to from distant relatives after one too many Sherries at great-aunt Julies. No, we are talking about the sort of vilification normally reserved for unwary meat eaters by militant vegans named Thorn, whose last shower was in the autumn of 1987. The uniformity of reactions has been extraordinary.  I obviously missed a memo somewhere along the way. So the question is has my moral compass really gone that off course? Have I really become a ghastly monster destined to pay for my sins by coming back in a future life as a hipster? Or is it time we questioned the blithe moralizing going on?

Since 1988 Burma has been ruled by a military junta and granted, it’s not necessarily the nice let’s have tea and some biscuits kind of junta. But nor is it the sort of megalomaniac “your life or your lupins” North Korean style scary government. Yet surely this is sort of beside the point, because since when did tourists start boycotting countries so vehemently just because of the misdemeanours of their governments? I can’t recall the last time someone declared their Tuscan biking tour off-limits until Berlusconi managed to keep his hands off young and lovely ladies (not to mention the media, the judiciary and the entire democratic process).  I don’t believe pilgrimages to Graceland were down during the Bush years. Nor does Dubai’s quite astoundingly medieval attitude towards human rights seem to be doing the fake handbag tourism industry too badly.

At first I thought that perhaps in an increasingly complicated world where information overload is more likely to confuse matters than to clarify, we are in need of a simple ethical conundrum to be on the right side of and thus confirm the self belief we have in our own goodness.  But the masses have never minded simplifying issues into black and white and picking a side. So why Burma, why has such a globally insignificant little country managed to gather such a devout following? Or is its insignificance the point?

Ewz’s favourite philosopher Slavoj Zizek claims that there is no such thing as freedom anymore, just lifestyle choices. All of history’s big attempts to create better societies have been thwarted by the slow stifling rise of consumerist individualism. Boycotting Burma does not have the same consequences as drawing a line in the sand and daring Nazi Germany to cross it. It’s not the same as demanding the engine of the global economy, China, loosen its stranglehold on Tibet, or else. Boycotting Burma means slightly more people will go and swim with the turtles in Thailand or work on their headstands in India instead. But what boycotting Burma does do is allow people, businesses and governments to take an ethical stand without actually standing at all. It’s the margarine of political action. It’s the diet coke of political action. Just one calorie, not action enough.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Claude Van Inkins permalink*
    October 30, 2009 11:39 am


  2. Cuggle permalink
    October 30, 2009 7:58 pm

    Dear Einsteinsdreams, I enjoyed reading your artical as it mad me laugh.

    Therefore I would like to raise a few points and fact which might change your mind…

    Firts, why should foreigners provide money to the military regime that run the country in such a brutal way? It is impossible to visit Burma without funding the military dictatorship. Why should tourism provide a gloss of acceptability to the generals and hadn’t Aung San Suu Kyi – the imprisoned head of the National League for Democracy opposition party – asked tourists to stay away?

    Eventough some claim that in a country wrought with poverty, tourism was one of the few ways people could make a living, but being realistic, the tourism industry ‘makes’ $200million dollars a year, gross. That’s what thailand makes in 4 single days. A very small number of people make their living from tourism, and so of course they defend it, but all of the citizens suffer from the regime that keeps them living in poverty and in fear. Three quarters of the population are farmers and these people are not benefiting from tourism industry. Luxury hotels import foreign goods for tourists instead of using local products. Tourists sit by swimming pools in hotels like those owned by Orient Express and pay five dollars for an imported can of coke. How do the peolpe of Burma benefit from that???

    Second, the regime identified and promoted tourism as a source of foreign exchange, not as a way of providing jobs for the people.
    They need foreign dollars to buy the guns they use to rule over the citizens.

    Not only does tourism fund the regime, tourist facilities have been built by forced labour. Ordinary Burmese people have been forcibly removed from their homes to clean-up areas for tourism.

    Some have tried to argue that the presence of tourists could help prevent human rights abuses, as the regime would not do certain things in front of tourists. But during the uprising last September, even before the crackdown, tourists were hiding in their hotels until they could get on the first flight out.

    Tourists should think twice before they consider Burma as a tourist destination. How will their money be spent by the regime? Bear in mind that the regime spends around half its income on the military. This is the military that shoots at monks who are peacefully protesting. A military that uses rape as a weapon of war in its war of ethnic cleansing in the east of Burma, even raping girls as young as six. They torture, they assassinate, they mutilate and behead people. This is what your tourist dollars help pay for. By visiting Burma, tourists are not providing financial or moral support , instead they fund the peoples oppressors.

    Stay away!!!


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