Burma – Wish you were here?


Universe Column for August 15th 2004

by David Alton

As we enjoy our summer holidays it’s worth sparing a thought for the people of Burma and those who are holidaying in a country that uses forced labour to prop up its tourism industry.

I’ve recently been in a spate of correspondence with people who argue that its time to welcome back the tourists to Burma. But before travel companies start counting their profits and tourists start packing their bags it’s worth remembering that the tourism infrastructure has cost people their lives.

Some people say this is a figment of the imagination. The facts reveal a different picture.

In 1998 the International Labour Organisation said that:

“ Forced labour is used for the benefit of private investors in development, public works and tourism projects. Widespread use of forced labour on a significant scale supports the development of tourist infrastructure., In Myanmar (Burma), most of the money made in the tourist industry is made in the airline and hotel industries, owned in part by foreign companies from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. These companies have reported benefits from the increased profits during 1996 Visit Myanmar Year, attributable in part to work of forced labourers on tourist attraction projects.”

They give a specific example of forced labour on hotels:

Forced labour was used for other projects including the Student Sport Festival in Chin and Rakhine States, hotels in Rakhine State.”

The accompanying note says:

“ There is information that forced labour was used in 1995 on the construction of the Sittway Hotel, at the beach near Sittway (Akyab), and in 1994 for construction of a hotel south of Ngapali, projects which were reportedly owned by senior members of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).”

It’s not just forced labour on hotel projects, but the raft of abuses that accompany tourist development. More than one million people have been forced out of their homes in order to ‘beautify’ cities, suppress dissent, and to make way for tourism developments, such as hotels, airports and golf courses. Forced labour was used to rebuild the moat surrounding the Golden Palace in Mandalay and a railway line near Pagan’s temple complex. The new airport at Mandalay, which opened in 2000 specifically to handle international flights, was built with forced labour and many people were forced from their homes to make way for the project. The 2001 US State Department Report on Human Rights, reports that in Mrauk U, Arakan State “the government used forced labour to prepare the city for expected tourist arrivals.”

Some recent reports show that this is not a thing of the past.

Recently it was revealed that a large number of valuable timber trees were being felled for the construction of a tourism complex, in Ngapali sea beach of Sandoway in Arakan state, by the Burmese and that locals were being used as unpaid forced labour.

Other reports described how villagers were being used for forced labour for various works like construction of houses, locating of specific trees and logging them without any payments.  One victim said, not only do the villagers have to supply their physical labour free of cost but also have to provide buffaloes.

” We are being forced by the military personnel,” said a villager of Khamong. The villagers not only have to work without any payments but they even have to manage food and water on their own.

Another recent report described how sea gypsies (the Salons) have been turned into a human zoo for the benefit of tourists.

And if all this doesn’t trouble the conscience of tourists travelling to Burma, they should take a look at the most recent International Labour Organisation report which says that the Burmese “are not serious about eliminating forced labour” that villagers are still being used “against their will to carry out assignments such as building roads” and that “there is evidence that troops are using Burmese citizens as human minesweepers.”

No happy holidays for them.