Select Committee on Economic Affairs Written Evidence

Memorandum by Voices for Burma


  1.1  This evidence is supplied by Voices For Burma (VFB). VFB is a British-founded and web-based not-for-profit International Non-Governmental Organisation (INGO) Since 2003, VFB has been campaigning on two fronts: The first, to explore the formerly black and white nature of the tourist boycott debate hitherto seen until VFB's inception; and the second, to educate visitors to Burma about the need to travel ethically and to ameliorate the negative impact of those who were visiting Burma with only scant information on ethical travel.

  1.2  VFB's archive of policies and ethical travel tips is available on its website VFB is contactable through Andrew Gray at


  2.1  In this paper, VFB examines the UK Government's policy on tourism to Burma as an essential component of its economic sanctions regime under the EU Common Position. It is VFB's stance that the UK Government's policy on tourism to Burma is at best confused and at worst irreconcilable with its commitment under the Common Position to assist the poorest sections of Burmese society.

  2.2  It is not VFB's argument that the Travel Boycott is fundamentally flawed, as VFB discourages some tourists to Burma, however the boycott policy has not been evaluated and has not engendered any positive societal shifts.


  3.1  Burma has been run—under one guise or another—by a military Junta since 1962. The current incarnation is the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) led by General Than Shwe. Burma is a former colony of Britain, which was "given" its independence in 1948.

  3.2  The Junta is one of the most pernicious regimes in the world, committing human rights abuses on a truly grand scale. Following an uprising in 1988, which was brutally suppressed by the army, elections were held in 1990, which led to the National League for Democracy (NLD) winning 82 per cent of the votes, even though its iconic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was forbidden from standing. The army has not relinquished control.

  3.3  Today, the regime stands accused—some would say guilty of—the following, but in no way exhaustive list of human infringements and state crimes:

    —  Over 1,100 political prisoners languish in jail convicted of spurious "crimes". The most famous is Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent 10 of the last 16 years living under house arrest.

    —  Continued use of anti-personnel landmines.[214]

    —  Use of child soldiers.[215]

    —  Gross economic mismanagement.

    —  Forced labour.

    —  Bloating the numbers of the army to between 400,000 and 500,000 in a state of 50 million people, which has no discernable external enemies.

    —  Conducting military offences against ethnic minority groups, in particular the Karen. Such offensives have forced thousands of people to flee their villages through the malarial-infested jungle to the relative safety of the overflowing refugee camps on the Thai side of the Thai-Burma border.

    —  Burma is the second largest producer of opium in the world.


  4.1  Burma finds itself under the imposition of sanctions by the US and EU. Following considerable pressure from many sources, most notably the US Government, Burma was formally entered onto the UN Security Council Agenda on 15 September 2006 with a 10-4 vote. The British Government backed the proposal, which could in theory pave the way for a resolution imposing, amongst other punishments, UN economic sanctions.

  4.2  The UK Government's policy stance on tourism can be traced back to before the election of the present Government in 1997. The late Derek Fatchett MP, in his position as Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, stated in 1996: "The development of the tourist industry has been at a price to the local community which every decent person would regard as unacceptable. I would strongly urge tourists to think carefully before booking a holiday in Burma. The price of an exotic holiday could be someone else's life."[216]When in power, he wrote to travel associations in 1998 in relation to the Government's concerns about the encouragement of tourism in Burma. In 2003, the Foreign Office Minister, Mike O'Brien continued in Mr Fatchett's footsteps by stating: "I propose to write to all travel organisations with any links with tourism in Burma. There are very few of them, but if any are involved, we shall target them and ask them not to allow, encourage or participate in tourism in Burma. Some people go to Burma for their own reasons, and we want to discourage them from doing so."[217] In the same debate the Minister stated: "We must ensure that sanctions do not hurt the Burmese people whom we are trying to help."[218]

  4.3  The UK Government's stance is mostly outlined in the EU's Common Position, which was first implemented in 1996. The Position has a number of restrictive measures in its armoury. The policy is detailed on the FCO website as follows:

    "Target those obstructing reform and progress, but ensuring that the ordinary people of Burma suffer as little as possible. The Common Position includes: an arms embargo; bans on defence links, high-level bilateral government visits, the supply of equipment that might be used for internal repression or terrorism and an asset freeze and visa ban on regime members, their families, the military and security forces and others who actively frustrate the process of national reconciliation. Most development aid is suspended."[219]

  4.4  This Common Position was last reviewed on 27 April 2006.

  4.5  Former Foreign Office Minister, Ian Pearson MP, explained that this was a "twin track policy"[220] with "targeted measures aimed at members of the military government who are responsible for the current situation in Burma, and members of their families, cronies and others who benefit from the regime's corruption; and assistance to the poorest sections of society who suffer most from the Burmese government's failed policies."

  4.6  It is VFB's contention that this position is reasonable, in particular the notion that assistance should be provided to those who suffer most at the hands of the Junta.

  4.7  The UK Government's position is then muddied by their policy on tourism as espoused on the FCO website "The UK does not encourage trade, investment or tourism with Burma."[221] The position does not become clearer as the FCO website states:

    "We have drawn attention to the views of Burma's democratic leaders, including ASSK, that tourism to Burma is inappropriate at present due to the poor political and human rights situation and the economic benefits it brings to the regime. Burmese tourism officials are included in the EU travel ban imposed on Burma. We would urge anyone who may be thinking of visiting Burma on holiday to consider carefully whether by their actions they are helping to support the regime."[222]

  4.8  Furthermore, the Prime Minister, Tony Blair MP, offered his insight into whether tourists should go to Burma: "I would urge anyone who may be thinking of visiting Burma on holiday to consider carefully whether by their actions they are helping to support the regime and prolong such dreadful abuses."[223] The Prime Minister's statement was supported by the then leaders of the Conservative and the Liberal Democrat Party, Michael Howard MP and Charles Kennedy MP, as they pledged in February 2005 that they would not holiday in Burma either.[224]


  5.1  The tourist policy was forged in response to pressure from lobbyists who wanted the Junta's "Visit Myanmar Year" of 1996 to be a resounding failure. Aung San Suu Kyi has made many pronouncements on tourism, most of which can be construed as being anti-tourism. The UK Government has heeded her insistence -(and that of the lobbyists who represent her) that the time is not right for tourism. The lobbyist's best argument is that forced labour has been used in the tourist industry; there has been no analysis as to whether the link between tourist infrastructure and forced labour has continued. Put simply, the UK Government policy on tourism is indistinguishable from that of the lobbyists. The objective of this policy is to pacify the lobbyists. Further, as this stance has only a miniscule impact on UK businesses it is an easy policy to have.

  5.2  The UK Government's objective of economic sanctions and the tourist boycott is to pressurise the Junta into relinquishing power by targeting the Junta and its cronies whilst not further impoverishing the Burmese people. Democracy is seen through the prism of elections solely, whereas democracy is a process with elections as its zenith. The UK Government has given little thought as to how positive change is best delivered for the Burmese people.

  5.3  VFB is concerned that although the Government states that its policies are not designed to have a deleterious impact on the poorest members of Burmese society, the tourist boycott—which is undoubtedly a major component of its economic sanctions—affects those who work in the tourist industry, or could work in the tourist industry. This includes those who work in the following industries and their families: private guesthouse employees; private taxis drivers; tea shop owners; souvenir sellers; guides etc; and those who would benefit indirectly from the positive multiplier effect. The Former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw MP, did not mention these people in the tourist sector—a sector very much overlooked—when he stated recently: "The UK Government will continue to support the poorest and most vulnerable people in Burma."[225]

  5.4  Further, in this age of digital cameras, email and internet, the possibilities of visitors to Burma acting as pseudo-journalists is a prospect not even countenanced by the Government. The joint Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Burma, John Bercow MP, concurs about the need for information from Burma. He stated in a House of Commons debate, as part of his answer to a question about the Junta's longevity: "It is only the absence of television cameras that has prevented the true horror of what is taking place from being known."[226] t is VFB's position that visitors to Burma are pseudo-journalists who can, in John Bercow's words, "Help open up to public and international view the reality of the violation of human rights that is taking place and would give the opportunity for independent testimony to the scale of the savagery."[227] VFB would urge the Government to contemplate this notion.

  5.5  Burma was effectively isolated and insulated from the forces of tourism from 1962 to the mid 1990s. Today, the tourist industry in Burma is growing slowly, largely due to cross-border tourism from neighbouring China. Although tourism statistics are not reliable, 5,000-7,000 British tourists travelled to Burma in 2005 according to Junta statistics. Tourism revenue in 2005 was $153 million from 666,000 visitors of which it is estimated that 60 per cent are day-trippers.[228] This pales into insignificance when compared with the number of British tourists visiting neighbouring Thailand.

  5.6  The UK Government does not appear to have a yardstick with which to measure the impact of its tourism policy on the least privileged members of Burma's society who eek out a living in the tourist industry; it is time that this was rectified.


  6.1  The UK Government has had an eminently difficult task in dealing with the recalcitrant Junta. Unfortunately, the UK lacks clout in Burma and its stance, under the Common Position, has had no impact in bringing about positive change in Burma. As Ian Pearson MP laments: "We should not overestimate the effectiveness of western sanctions on the Burmese regime; they have not had any significant impact that we can see to date.[229]"

  6.2  Burma continues to be the only country in which the UK Government actively dissuades travellers from visiting.[230] It is VFB's contention that the impact of this policy demands thorough evaluation and analysis. Furthermore, this policy is irreconcilable with that of the second strand of the Common Position, as it damages the livelihoods of those who work in the tourist sector or who could work in the tourist industry. It is a policy entered into with little thought, and born out of pandering to the lobbyists who have a stranglehold over UK Burma policy. Gesture politics does not assist the Burmese man trying to feed his family.

  6.3  Tourism is the world's largest service industry according to the FCO's associated Travel Foundation. The face of tourism is changing rapidly. The different types of tourists include: eco-holidaymakers, backpackers, cheap-flight holidaymakers, package travellers, TEFL teachers, war veterans, gap-yearers and pilgrims. It is VFB's experience that travellers to Burma respond well to being supplied with information about ethical travel. It is also VFB's experience that travellers to Burma are interested in leaving the country in a better state than when they found it. VFB have had countless requests from travellers who want to know where they can teach in Burma or what items, such as newspapers, they can take in to satisfy the cravings of the information-starved people of Burma. It therefore flies in the face of intellectual reason for the Government to bracket all forms of tourism together in this regard.

  6.4  The Burma tourism question is highly complex and emotive. The UK Government has a duty to those living through the Burmese nightmare to formulate sound policies based on thorough analysis and constant evaluation. Ian Pearson MP, is right to say that "there is no simple answer"[231] to the Burmese quagmire, so it is regrettable that the Government's tourism policy is so black and white.

  6.5  VFB would like it to be noted for the record that economic sanctions will not have the desired effect of punishing the Junta, as long as the twin emerging giants of India and China battle it out for supremacy over Burma's natural assets, and Burma's other neighbours, notably Thailand, also continue to trade with her. VFB questions whether if all countries adhered to multilateral sanctions on Burma and a total tourist boycott was followed stringently, whether this would precipitate the change that we all hope to see.

  6.6  This year is the 10th anniversary of the Junta's "Visit Myanmar Year" when the Junta encouraged tourists to Burma. Ten years ago, in order to counter this state promotion, lobbyists demanding a tourist boycott swiftly began the tourist boycott campaign, and to this day, its legacy lives on. VFB doubts whether Burma is any closer to realising a better future after 10 years of this tourist boycott.

26 September 2006

214   International Campaign to Ban Landmines dated Back

215   Burma Campaign UK Back

216 Back

217 Back

218 Back

219 Profile&aid=1018965307901#Bur Back

220   House of Commons debate 16 June 2005. Back

221 Profile&aid=1018965307901#Bur Back

222 Profile&aid=1018965307901#Bur Back

223 Back

224 Back

225 &aid=1115147721902%20&year=2005&month=2005-06-01&2005-06-16 Back

226 burma&PHRASE=&CATEGORIES=&SIMPLE=&SPEAKER=&COLOUR=red&STYLE=s&ANCHOR=st_23&URL=/pa/cm200506/cmhansrd/cm050615/halltext/50615h03.htm#st_23 Back

227 burma&PHRASE=&CATEGORIES=&SIMPLE=&SPEAKER=&COLOUR=red&STYLE=s&ANCHOR=st_23&URL=/pa/cm200506/cmhansrd/cm050615/halltext/50615h03.htm#st_23 Back

228   Burma Briefing by ALSEAN July 2006 Back

229 burma&PHRASE=&CATEGORIES=&SIMPLE=&SPEAKER=&COLOUR=red&STYLE=s&ANCHOR=st_23&URL=/pa/cm200506/cmhansrd/cm050615/halltext/50615h03.htm#st_23 15 June 2006. Back

230   117 To the best of VFB's knowledge. We await clarification that this is the case. Back

231 16 29&a=KArticle&aid= 1115147681142%20&year=2005&month=2005-06-01&date=2005-06-16 Back

previous page contents

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007