Seven Tours Cancelled in Two Months as US Senate, Hunger Strikers Take Action

Washington, DC: The US Campaign for Burma today welcomed the cancellation of three major tours to Burma by leading institutions Stanford University, the Wright Institute of Chicago, and the University of Wisconsin.  The cancellations follow similar decisions over the last two months by the world-renown Smithsonian Institution, Asia Society, American
Museum of Natural History, and University of Washington.  Burma’s democracy movement, led by the worlds only incarcerated Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi, has called for a boycott of tourism to the country until there is an irreversible transition to democracy.

The cancellations took place as the United States Senate passed a unanimous resolution calling on the UN Security Council to address the situation in Burma, and as seven Burmese dissidents in exile launched a hunger strike in front of the UN building, demanding Security Council action.  The hunger strikers include a member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s
political party, the National League for Democracy, who narrowly survived a major massacre inside Burma on May 30th, 2003 during which up to 100 of her supporters were beaten to death by agents of the ruling military regime.  He subsequently fled the country.

“We are grateful that these institutions decided that now is not the right time for up-scale tourism to Burma,” said Han Lin, a Burmese dissident in exile and a member of US Campaign for Burma, on Monday as he entered the seventh day of his hunger strike across United Nations headquarters in New York.

“Their decisions were based on support for democracy and human rights-now the UN Security Council should take similar action and censure these military thugs.”

The Senate resolution, which received broad support, was led by a bipartisan group of Senators including powerful Senate majority whip Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).  A similar measure has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressmen Elton Gallegly (R-CA) and Tom Lantos (D-CA).

US President George W. Bush also cited Burma’s freedom struggle and quoted Aung San Suu Kyi in his recent speech before the United Nations General Assembly, singling out the importance of change in the Asian country in a speech focused mainly on the Middle East.

Tourism is linked to human rights abuses and benefits Burma’s military regime in a number of ways. First, the regime uses forced labor–a modern form of slavery–to develop its tourist infrastructure. The International Labor Organization reports that “the military treats the civilian population as an unlimited pool of unpaid forced laborers and servants at
their disposal. The practice of forced labor is to encourage private investment in infrastructure development, public sector works and tourism projects.” As a result of the military regime’s use of forced labor, the ILO has called for international sanctions on Burma, the first time the organization has taken such action in its 80-year history.

Second, thousands of Burmese people have been forced from their homes to make way for tourism developments or as part of so-called “beautification” projects. These people are usually left without homes or shelter, so that tourists can “enjoy” the areas where they used to live. Third, Burma’s regime, desperate to get its hands on dollars, milks the tourism industry to maximize government intake. The country’s Minister of Hotels and Tourism, Major General Saw Lwin, admitted that the government receives about 12 per cent of the income even of private tourism services, while the military regime receives much larger sums from visa fees and government-controlled entities.

Many prominent individuals, organizations, and companies have joined the boycott of tourism to Burma, similarly to the 1980s boycott of South Africa’s apartheid government.

According to the popular “Rough Guides” travel guide: “There are occasional instances where any benefits (from tourism) are overshadowed by the nature of the social and political climate. Apartheid South Africa was an example. Burma, with its brutal dictatorship, state control of the economy and forced labor used to build its tourist infrastructure, is another. As long as the military regime remains in power and Aung San Suu
Kyi – leader of the democratically elected National League for Democracy – requests that tourists do not visit, Rough Guides will not publish a guide to the country.”