Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has signalled an end to a longstanding tourism boycott, stating foreigners should be welcomed to the country.
In an interview with The Times Win Tin, a senior leader of the National League for Democracy, said foreigners should visit Burma to see for themselves the suffering of the people under one of the world’s most stubborn and repressive military dictatorships.
“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,” said Mr Win Tin, a co-founder of the NLD and close friend of Ms Suu Kyi.
“For the outside world to see, to know our situation, that can help our cause a lot, we think. It’s rather difficult for us, but very recently Mr Tin Oo [the NLD’s deputy leader] and myself decided that really we can’t ask people not to come to Burma.”
Nobel peace prize winning Suu Kyi has spent 20 years as a political prisoner in Burma following success in a general election in 1990.
The tourism boycott has been one of the central planks of the international campaign for democracy in Burma since 1996, which was designated by the junta as ‘Visit Burma Year’.
Democracy activists described that initiative as a cynical effort to support the armed forces with foreign tourist money in the form of taxes.
They also said it benefited travel companies run by the regime’s cronies.
“Burma will be here for many years, so tell your friends to visit us later,” Ms Suu Kyi said at the time.
“Visiting now is tantamount to condoning the regime.”
“The matter is not so very easy for us, so we haven’t decided yet whether we reverse Daw [a term of respect] Aung San Suu Kyi’s request,” Mr Tin told The Times in an interview in Rangoon.
“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.”
The new tourism policy will be welcomed by the global travel industry, for whom Burma is a largely untouched mine of attractions.
The ruins of the ancient city of Pagan, the old city of Mandalay, and Inle Lake are among the most attractive locations in the country, but many tourists avoid them for ethical reasons.
Many anti-regime Burmese deplore the boycott which, they say, hurts ordinary taxi drivers, guest house owners and souvenir vendors more than the regime’s cronies who run the airline and big hotels.
On Sunday, the Burmese government will hold an election that has been denounced as unfair by Western governments and boycotted by the NLD.
There is widespread expectation that on November 13th Ms Suu Kyi may be released at the end of her latest term of house arrest.