Burma in the Balance

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 25, 2003

It would easy to mistake this postcard-perfect sunrise over Burma's ancient city of Bagan for a travel cliche. But it's not a cliche. It's a metaphor. Take a closer look:

A rosé horizon backlights a black skyline of spires and domes. A thin morning fog lies on the plain, torn by temples that rise beyond number above the treetops. They stretch to every horizon, squat pagodas to soaring Buddhist cathedrals, more than 2,000 shrines dating to an 11th-century religious building boom. Watching the tide of dawn creep across this antique world is like meditating on a just-opening lotus blossom.

In the quiet, a bulge detaches itself from a temple to the north and floats smoothly into the brightening sky. The bulge resolves into three separate hot-air balloons that drift tranquilly among the holy ramparts. A flare of gas lights up a cluster of tourists peering over a gondola, followed a beat later by the soft roar of propane. From high on a temple ledge, other foreigners click shutters and murmur appreciations at the surreal and beautiful scene of -- here comes the metaphor -- tourism taking off in Burma.

More and more international visitors are making it to this long-shunned corner of Southeast Asia. The government's own statistics -- notoriously suspect -- show almost a half-million foreigners arriving last year, more than doubling since it began a major tourism push in 1996. No matter how inflated those figures, outside observers agree that tourism is climbing, particularly after last year's bombing in Bali sent travelers in search of alternate Asian beaches.

"Last year was our best year; we were up 20 percent," says Juergen Voss, the German manager of the high-end Bagan Hotel, a plush resort on the banks of the Irrawaddy River and in Bagan's archaeological district.

As he sips club soda on a hotel terrace, small groups of German and French guests arrive at the hotel's masonry gates, mostly retirees on package tours. They climb down from donkey carts, patting the animals and tipping their local drivers for a few hours of sightseeing among temples as stirring as better-known sites like Angkor Wat or Tikal.

"Myanmar is becoming very popular," says Voss. "It's a completely new destination for Westerners."

More people are coming, but the question is, should they? Arguably more than any other country, Burma presents the conscientious traveler with a dilemma: Will my visit help or hurt the local people?

Burma, also known as Myanmar, enjoys both pearl and pariah status in Southeast Asia. It's a largely preindustrial preserve of stirring panoramas, ornate Buddhist architecture, connoisseur-class artisanship and culture that is deep and welcoming, even by the graceful standards of the region. And it's all under the control of what human rights activists say is one of the most vicious governments on Earth.

Many of those activists -- led by Burma's own indomitable opposition hero, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi -- say tourist dollars prop up an all-controlling regime that's guilty of torturing and killing dissidents, wholesale narcotics trafficking, forcing citizens to build roads and hotels, conscripting children to fight in the army and holding more than 1,000 political prisoners. But others, who also condemn the atrocities, argue that tourism is just the kind of "engagement" with the outside world that will improve the lives of some ordinary Burmese, increase global awareness of Burma's plight and, ultimately, hasten the regime's fall.

"My opinion is that tourists should go," says David Steinberg, director of Asian studies at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service. "I'm a great admirer of Aung San Suu Kyi, and I'd very much like to see her come to power. But I disagree with her on this point. Tourism provides a rare channel of communication for the Burmese, it provides jobs and it allows foreigners to learn about this culture."

Jeremy Woodrum doesn't buy it. "They're one of the world's most brutal military regimes, cut and dried, and tourism provides them with a significant amount of hard currency," says Woodrum, director of the Washington office of the Free Burma Coalition. "We think tourists who travel to Burma play right into the regime's hands."

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