Friday, September 28, 2007

Lonely Planet's PR wallahs respond

Having e-mailed them to let them know I'd be joining the boycott of their products while they continue to produce their guidebook to Burma, I received a response by e-mail trying to vindicate their stance. I won't reproduce it verbatim as that might infringe copyright.

1. Their main claim is that they're providing information to allow 'travellers' (LP don't cater to 'tourists' :) ) to make an informed choice about whether or not to visit Burma. Herein lies the transformation of the last 3 decades or so, LP originally started with a readership that could be considered the tail end of the hippie era, now in common with the rest of society they've become consumers, irrespective of them liking to think of themselves as 'backpackers' or 'alternative'. Today's backpacker is basically a tourist doing it on the cheap (and you'd know how cheap, if like me, you've run a cafe in Thailand and 6 backpackers have spent an entire evening huddled around a single bottle of Coke so as to be able to watch the film we were screening on our TV for free).
So the presence of one of the world's most repressive regimes, comes down to just another factor along with cost, climate, beaches, availability of drugs, etc. If any of their consumers was really that concerned about human rights they'd be perfectly well aware of the horrific nature of the Burmese government.
What if LP had been around in the 1930s, would they have produced a guidebook for Nazi Germany too?

2. They claim that to do otherwise would be banning books and stifling information. Sorry, can't have it both ways - if we the public are no more than consumers and it all comes down to choice, they can hardly complain if a section of that public choose not to buy their books. Is it really stifling information, do their books tell you anything you need to know about the political situation there you can't get from the net or the newspapers?

3. They claim their guidebooks allow tourists to spend money so as to go to the locals rather than the military regime. The regime is primarily a kleptocracy, enriching itself at the expense of the Burmese population, which is why I believe in this case sanctions can have an effect: starve them of cash and they lose their reason to retain power. You have to change your tourist currency for Burmese kyats at some point (presumably you can change some on the black market, be a tad suspicious if you didn't change any at all officially) which puts hard currency their way, the kyat being utterly worthless on the international markets.
Don't forget the generals have to pay for the bullets their troops use on monks and protesters, although AFAIK some of their near neighbours have treated them rather generously in this respect. Also don't forget at least some of the tourist infrastructure that you'll use was built with forced labour.

4. They encourage their tourists to speak out on what they've seen and contact their Burmese embassy. Has any backpacker told you anything you didn't know or couldn't find out through the other media? And while I doubt contacting their embassies will have any effect, I'd still encourage anyone to have a go, but does anyone really think the fact that you've put hard currency in the generals' back pockets mean your opinions will carry more weight?

But I think the overall point is that treating people as consumers, as our society does to such a great extent, means influencing choices. Most backpackers are not stupid, they know full well Burma is a brutally repressive society, but they can feel vindicated in their choice to go there, not only in that a supposedly responsible corporate like Lonely Planet publishes a guidebook but more than that, reassures them their choice is vindicated by maybe spreading on the info about what they've seen.

I'd suggest that people should rather respect Aung San Suu Kyi's request and not go to Burma. May I also suggest that you do Lonely Planet the service of letting them know they're out of order by boycotting their products.

Burma Campaign's rather telling graphic.


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