Burma… Guilt Trip?

Dear Inga la Gringa,

I’ve always wanted to go to Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar). I’m inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi’s grace and vision — who knew one could lead so effectively while under house arrest? (Well I guess Nelson Mandela did it in a way, from prison.) Anyway, I’ve got a great opportunity to travel there, but am deeply conflicted because Suu Kyi recommends against visiting, since that amounts to doing business with the current government. What should I do? Is it bad to travel to countries that are known human rights violators?

Conflicted in the Castro,
Donna

Dearest Conflicted Donna,

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won 82 percent of the vote during Burma’s last legal election in 1990. But the military junta failed to honor the election they initiated, and kept Daw Suu under house arrest, where they had placed her when they seized power in 1989. After six years under arrest — during which she received the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize — she was released. But it wasn’t long before the junta placed Daw Suu under house arrest again.

The Myanmar junta suck. They indiscriminately kill Burmese people and force thousands into unpaid back-breaking labor. Thirteen hundred people (it was 1500, two hundred were recently released) — some of whom were also voted into parliament in that last legal election — are being held as political prisoners.

Daw Suu has said she feels “free” under house arrest because the junta will not stop her from leaving the country. She is “free” to leave and cease her political activity — two stipulations that are unthinkable to Daw Suu.

On December 8, 2001, all living Nobel Peace Laureates gathered in Oslo, Norway to honor the tenth anniversary of Daw Suu winning the prize. The Archbishop Desmond Tutu officiated. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t make it to Oslo. In fact, she didn’t even make it to her husband’s funeral in 1999. She rarely sees her children.

You sum all this up by calling it “grace and vision.”

The Lady, Donna, has devoted her entire life to freeing a population of human beings from economic and physical bondage. “Grace and vision” hardly describe her tenacity and fierce resistance to oppression.

(You may have noticed that two different words are used to describe this country: “Burma” and “Myanmar.” “Burma” and “Rangoon” are the terms the people, Daw Suu and the National League for Democracy use when referring to their land. “Yangon” is what the junta calls Rangoon, Burma’s largest city, and Daw Suu’s birthplace, and “Myanmar” is what the junta calls the country.)

Herein lies my problem with your “quandary,” Donna.

You say you are “inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi’s grace and vision,” and though she has expressly asked foreigners not to come to Burma and economically support Myanmar’s military junta, you nevertheless want to take advantage of a “great opportunity” to travel there.

You ask if it is “bad” to travel to countries that are “known human rights violators.” Are you seeking some kind of conscience-massaging from me? As in, “Well Donna, lots of countries are human rights violators, but that doesn’t mean people from the U.S. can’t go there and stay in their hotels and swim in their pools. I don’t think you should feel bad about human rights violations, because it’s not your fault.”

Donna, fuck that.

U.S. citizens make me want to pull my hair out by the roots and scream. We know things are “bad” in “other places” but we don’t want to feel “bad” for further exploiting them.

Donna, don’t “feel bad” — be outraged. And…look in your own backyard.

You signed your letter “Conflicted in the Castro” so I assume you are from San Francisco. In your city, the Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin has been busting its ass for over two decades fighting human rights abuses against your neighbors. The people of the Mission District — some of whom are ancestors of the people who were here long before white “settlers” — have been struggling to maintain their community ever since the software boom sent a new class of citizens scurrying into their neighborhood for housing. Many families have lost their homes because of skyrocketing rents and property taxes. Donna, where have your neighbors gone, and how many of them are now in jails, homeless shelters or on the fuckin’ street?

My suggestion to you is to go on vacation in San Francisco.

Visit a juvenile detention center and spend a night in a homeless shelter. Walk around the streets all day and see the people you have closed your eyes to. Harness all of the energy you might experience by feeling “bad” and all the money you might spend going to Burma, and figure out ways to make a difference in your own city.

That is how you can truly honor the inspiration and grace of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. You can emulate her by devoting your entire life to freeing a population of human beings from economic and physical bondage.

With Love,
Inga la Gringa
Tourism Boycott: Burma

avant garde travel advice

You ask if it is "bad" to travel to countries that are "known human rights violators." Are you seeking some kind of conscience-massaging from me?

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