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Myanmar elections could
unleash an army – of travellers

The general election in Burma, flawed or not, is an opportunity to pry open the tourism door to allow liberating cross-border pollination.

Bangkok, October 2010

Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda at dusk

Myanmar's splendid Shwedagon Pagoda glows in the Yangon dusk, a beacon for the faithful - Photo: Getty Images

A CHARMING feature of Myanmar newspapers is their prominent references to the moons of the lunar calendar in the datelines. While the papers may leave readers with little idea of what is happening in the real world, they at least have a good idea of their place in the greater astral scheme.

On the lunar agenda is the full moon of Tazaungmon on 21 November, a public holiday. Politically, on 7 November, 2010, the Burmese experience something infinitely rarer than even a blue moon: a general election. There have only been a handful since 1947 when the British were laying the way to independence, and the last was in May 1990.

It was both conclusive and utterly inconclusive. The spectacular 80 percent landslide in favour of the National League for Democracy, which had been co-founded in 1988 by Aung San Suu Kyi, was ignored by the ruling generals of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Evidently, Military Intelligence had wrongly predicted a much better showing for the National Unity Party, which was favoured by the junta. The generals have never been much good at sums.

Dominic Faulder

Dominic Faulder

The generals’ new charter ensures that people married to foreigners are barred from the presidency, that a quarter of the 440 seats are reserved for the military, and that various key ministries remain under military control

Heated arguments erupted as to whether the poll had been intended to elect a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, or to form a parliament and turn government over to civilian rule. In the event, neither body was ever convened, and the generals spent the next 18 years crafting an ironclad constitution. It was forced through with indecent haste in 2008 in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.

The generals’ new charter ensures that people married to foreigners are barred from the presidency, that a quarter of the 440 seats are reserved for the military, and that various key ministries remain under military control. And, should matters still somehow get out of hand, the military can take back full control. Most would conclude that this is barely even one-star democracy.

Senior officers have been dutifully climbing out of uniform to run for election and take their places in the new parliament. Suu Kyi, who became a Nobel Peace Laureate in 1991 and is now sainted as a “democracy icon,” was unable to participate in the last election – at the time she was in the first of six years of house arrest. Indeed, she has spent more than two-thirds of the past two decades locked up home alone, and will not be participating in the coming election. Her party has meanwhile fallen foul of various election rules and been disbanded.

Following the full moon of Tazaungmon, no astrologers are predicting democracy for Myanmar. Why would they? Former Burmese strongman General Ne Win, who originally seized power in 1962, pulled a very similar political stunt with a constitutional referendum in 1973 that was formally adopted in 1974. The cosmetic return to civilian rule simply cemented in place the one-party system of the idiosyncratic Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP). In terms of military dominance and economic ineptitude, not that much has really changed since 1962. Burma (as it was officially known until 1989), staggered on under the BSPP until mid-1988, by which time the economy had completely run aground.

Tourism has been a major casualty. Many, including Suu Kyi at her most doctrinaire in the past, have argued that allowing Burmese tourism to develop would only enrich and entrench the ruling generals. Because of its undoubted and substantial violations of human rights, Myanmar has been subjected to a more sustained and systematic travel boycott campaign than just about any other country on Earth – whatever its actual political, human rights, social or safety issues, and commensurate official travel advisories. Countries that, rightly or wrongly, have generally got off lighter include Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Congo, Cuba…
Critics say that because Myanmar is so undemocratic, and has such an appalling record on freedom and human rights, it should be isolated. This argument has increasingly come to resemble a snake chasing its own tail. It can just as convincingly be argued that isolation has been a crucial factor in creating many of the country’s undoubted shortcomings.

One of the most distinct features of Ne Win’s grievous misrule of Burma from 1962 to 1988, when he finally stepped down as chairman of the BSPP, was his obsessive isolation of the country. The Burmese strongman elevated autarky and xenophobia to new heights, plunging the country into ignorance and economic ruin, and leaving relations with the outside world remarkably dysfunctional – a situation persisting even to this day. So why make a bad situation worse?

The glacial liberalisation of Burmese tourism
has seen arrivals at Mingaladon International Airport in Yangon (Rangoon, the former capital)
go from about
40,000 annually in the mid 1980s to nearly 300,000 at present

Cross-pollination of every kind was actively discouraged by Ne Win. Foreign visitors were confined to 24-hour transit visas in the 1970s, and could usually stay no longer than seven days in the 1980s. Recognising the immense financial potential of tourism, the junta has relaxed visa requirements over the past two decades to the point where visas on arrival have been introduced. Recognised journalists are not afforded this privilege and it remains to be seen if any will be allowed entry for the coming election to give the process some veneer of legitimacy. Official comments so far suggest that foreign journalists and observers will be barred. Not entirely surprisingly, visas on arrival for everyone else were suspended on 1 September, 2010, until further notice in a bid to keep out unrecognised journalists and political activists.

The glacial liberalisation of Burmese tourism has seen arrivals at Mingaladon International Airport in Yangon (Rangoon, the former capital) go from about 40,000 annually in the mid 1980s to nearly 300,000 at present. For decades, Mingaladon was the only permitted point of entry. Legal cross-border travellers, who were virtually non-existent in the 1980s, are now pushing up towards the 400,000 mark. Hotel rooms that numbered in the hundreds twenty years ago are nearing 20,000, and Mandalay Airport in the north boasts one of the largest runways in the world. Nobody doubts Myanmar’s huge potential.

“Myanmar is the number one growing destination in Asia, and it's remarkable that nobody else says that openly and clearly,” Werner Rumpf, managing director of Sun Birds Travel, recently told the Myanmar Times.

Overall arrivals were officially reported to have risen by about 25 percent in 2009, and nearly 40 percent in the first eight months of this year. The low base effect makes this sound much more impressive than it really is. Cambodia attracts well over two million visitors annually these days, and neighbouring Thailand’s 12-million visitor tourism industry is, on its own, roughly equivalent to the entire Burmese economy.

Can any good come of this election? The most cynical will argue that if the new parliament is five percent more representative, that’s an improvement. The generals will be able to congratulate themselves on hanging on to power and the reins of the economy – however inefficiently, cruelly and ineptly they run it. And they will remain largely unaccountable to anybody inside or outside the country.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world should wake up to the fact that they did this without the benefit of a significant tourism industry. If, like all other sanctions on Myanmar, the travel boycott has manifestly failed, what is the point of continuing?

The debates on Myanmar, particularly the travel boycott, have seen far too much self-righteous smugness, hollow posturing, and willingness to lash out at those seeking very elusive points of engagement.

Now is the time for a rethink that could turn Myanmar’s election into a real point of departure.

Dominic Faulder has been based in Bangkok since the early 1980s, contributing articles, photographs and commentaries to a wide range of news organizations. He was a special correspondent for the regional newsweekly Asiaweek until its closure in 2001, reporting mainly on Burma/Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand.

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Franz (1 November, 2010) – Germany
Whether the election is free or not it is important to open Myanmar to the world. A close door policy only helps hide the generals and all the misdeeds. How does that help any body? I agree with the writer. It is time to take bold steps and try a new approach.
Jim McBride (31 October, 2010) – United States
I visited Myanma ten years back and it wsa an eye opening experience. I agree that tourism can help pump dollars into the micro system that feeds to the lives of ordinary peopl. But i am in a quandary. Sometimes isolation hurts the weakest sections. But it does also send a powerful message to the generals who all definitely share in the tourism booty one way or another.
pieter (26 October, 2010) – netherlands
never have i heard of free and fair elections in burma. a fairy story cooked up by the junta. it would be good if it were true. we shall wait and see. burma deserves a voice and progress and it is a shame it has been held back so long.

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