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Burma: democracy banned but NLD lifts tourism boycott

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On Sunday, as Burmese head to the polls (or more likely stay indoors, in an opposition inspired boycott) a far reaching decision by the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy has gone largely unheralded.

In an interview with the London Times this week, NLD elder statesman, U Win Tin said that foreign tourists should now consider putting Burma on their itineraries. "We want people to come to Burma, not to help the junta, but to help the people by understanding the situation: political, economic, moral - everything," he told the Times.

This is a stark and dramatic turn-around: for the past 15 years the NLD has held fast and unbending to a tourism boycott policy.

Boycotts and sanctions have long been one of the lightning rods for conflict within the opposition forces of Burma. Many of the more liberal, forward looking activists have argued that it is essential for people to be allowed in. They argue that visitors would spend money, injecting currency into a desperately poor economy and then spread the word about conditions inside this mostly closed country.

Older and less progressive members of the opposition have often expressed fear that lifting sanctions would simply channel foreign dollars into government run tourism operations, tourists would be shown model communities full of smiling happy peasants and be fooled by the propaganda.

Aung San Suu Kyi - from her house arrest in Rangoon - has always asked people not to visit Burma as tourists, as part of the wider NLD platform of boycotts and sanctions. Growing criticism of the policy from the younger members of the NLD may have been part of the shift.

"The matter is not so very easy for us, so we haven't decided yet whether we reverse Aung San Suu Kyi's request. But our thinking nowadays is that we should allow people to come, to see how people are suffering under the regime ... There's no response from [Ms Suu Kyi], so I think she may agree," U Win Tin told the Times.

One young activist from Rangoon told the Huffington Post via email, "I am very glad they lift the tourism boycott. Actually, most of the spending spent by the tourists goes to local communities rather than government. Apart from visa fee and some small cost, the rest of the money go to local communities includes restaurants, shops, staffs at tourism companies, tour guides, taxi drivers, ethnics communities at the tourist attraction sites."

The activist believes that tourism will "increase the employment opportunities and a lot of young and educated people in the country can get opportunities to work in tourism sector."

"Interacting between local population and foreign tourists will help local people to understand more about foreign countries and foreign tourists can actually understand Burma," he said.

An exiled journalist told Huffington Post "of course they should lift the boycott. Let me share you what Myanmar travel industry used to tell me. Of course it still contributes to the government, but they said that most tourist money goes to (ordinary) people."

"I agree on this (lifting the boycott)," a New York based Burmese dissident said. "This would put the junta in a difficult position. They want to promote tourism, however, they don't want tourists to wonder around during the elections period. In recent days, you can see reports coming out from inside Burma from undercover journalists posing as tourists. I think more tourists would help surface the wrong doings of junta in the elections. Of course, tourists can choose where their money should go wisely by not spending their money with government businesses."

As the polls open for an election where victory for the party of the ruling junta is assured, most young people will join the boycott and not vote. But the pressure from young people for the NLD to lift their tourism boycott is one success in the long bitter struggle for democracy in Burma.