Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's release today from her latest house arrest at her lakeside villa in Yangon took me back to my visit to Myanmar (also known as Burma) at the start of the decade, and sparked renewed thoughts about the interplay of travel and politics.
I published some thoughts about that in a travel piece I wrote for the San Francisco Examiner, which the paper published as the Sunday travel cover story back on Oct. 22, 2000. Re-reading the piece today, I see very little I would change - including my comments about Suu Kyi's support for a trade embargo and total avoidance of travel by foreigners to her country.
Below are excerpts from that story for the Examiner. (Which was, by the way, then a professionally produced daily newspaper owned by the Hearst Corp.. Save for the name, it bears no relationship to the giveaway tabloid published today by other owners and written in large part by unpaid or barely paid aspiring writers):
YANGON (RANGOON) - It's mid-afternoon in the beating heart of the city. Traffic rumbles around the downtown park in the dry, baking heat. Local people stroll by, snacking on grilled meats at sidewalk food stalls, nibbling slices of fruit and cupping tins of cold water - captured from big chunks of ice that drip in the heat.
Burma is a beautiful country lost in time.
Aung San Suu Kyi is a woman of courage - demonstrated anew in September (2000), when she tested the limits of personal freedom by attempting to leave Rangoon for a political meeting, as she has done several times in recent years. The military, as it has done every time before, stopped her car, detained her, brought her food and water for a week, then forced her to drive back to Rangoon, where she remains under de facto house arrest, physically unharmed but also not free.
Viewing these struggles, I am hopeful that Suu Kyi and people like her will prevail and that deomcracy will come. But, in the meantime, as a journalist, I want to see things for myself and write about a wide variety of experiences. If I wrote only about people and places I approve of wholeheartedly, I would publish far fewer stories.
Most importantly, I am not convinced that tourism necessarily has to legitimize the status quo. In poor countries, it may well do the opposite - provided visitors deal directly with independent merchants and ordinary people outside official circles. In Burma, the average yearly income per person (circa 2000) is $300, one of the lowest in the world. Putting some money into their hands counts for something.
Moreover, tourism puts local people in contact with the outside world, easing their isolation - and lessening our blinkered provincialism. That counts for something, too. Burma/Myanmar calls itself the Golden Land, but in most of the world, it is more like the Unknown Land.
At my request, a senior U.S. diplomat in Rangoon explained U.S. foreign policy, which seeks to isolate Burma. He related some sobering facts: The junta closed the universities for four years because they were hotbeds of dissent, and it gunned down 3,000 protestors in the streets of Rangoon in 1988. To weaken the junta, Washington imposed an embargo in 1997 on new investment by American corporations (though not on Americans traveling to Burma).
But politics are rarely clear-cut, and sanctions and embargoes are not simple matters.
In the ''Lonely Planet Guide to Burma,'' a prominent dissident imprisoned by the military for three years takes strong exception to the U.S. embargo. Ma Thanegi writes:
"Two Westerners - one a prominent academic and the other a diplomat - once suggested to me that if sanctions and boycotts undermined the economy, people would have less to lose and would be willing to start a revolution ...
"Burma has many problems, largely the result of almost 30 years (now 40) of isolationism. More isolation won't fix the problems and sanctions push us backward, not forward. We need jobs. We need to modernize. We need to be part of the world. Don't close the door on us in the name of democracy.''
Ma Thanegi made me think about sanctions. Nelson Mandela credits international sanctions with helping to bring down apartheid in South Africa. If so, score one for sanctions. But the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba, in place since 1962, has only impoverished Cubans and has not accomplished the announced goal of toppling Fidel Castro. And sanctions against Iraq don't appear to have harmed Saddam Hussein, just Iraqi children. Saddam, still in power (until 2003), seems to get all the goodies he wants.
As for staying away from countries with pariah governments, I think I smell a double standard. America resumed trade and travel to China shortly after the Tiananmen Square shootings of 1989. And Mexico, where students were mowed down in the streets of Mexico City in 1968, was a one-party dictatorship for 71 years before July 2000, but Mexico has not lacked American tourists.
Is Burma worse? I don't think so. I think it's smaller, weaker and farther away. It's easy to demonize.
I decided to go.