April 26, 2012
By Thomas Fuller
KHAYIN KHWA, MYANMAR — The beaches of this southern Burmese archipelago are postcard perfect, easily fulfilling the clichés of a tropical paradise: Ribbons of white sand glow in the bright sun, all framed by the azure waters of a coral-filled sea.
A vast majority of the 800 islands here are also something else: empty.
In a part of the world otherwise packed with humanity, a visitor can travel an entire afternoon in a wooden boat weaving among uninhabited islands and see only a handful of fishermen in dugout canoes trolling for squid.
As Myanmar opens up to the world, the Mergui Archipelago, as it is known, could become the next frontier for Asian tourism.
But it is not a project for tomorrow. Even as Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, leaves behind decades of military rule, the archipelago remains paradise in a police state.
The few dozen tourists who visit the area each month are closely monitored. Eight copies of their passports are made and distributed to various elements of the authorities, including the military intelligence service and the Special Branch of the police, two bodies that during the rule of the military junta were tasked with tracking down enemies of the state.
The reasons for the security precautions are unclear. A former officer in the Burmese military says the government wants to cover up a massacre that took place on one of the islands.
U Phone Win, a businessman who owns an island in the archipelago and hopes to purchase a small cruise ship to take visitors around the area, says tight security is a pretext by shady interests seeking to protect their illegal fishing, logging and smuggling businesses.
“If Myanmar could develop these islands, they could receive millions of tourists,” Mr. Phone Win said. “But some of the authorities are trying to monopolize the area to make money for their own benefit.”
“They are trying to control the area,” he said. “There’s a lot of corruption.”
Despite a campaign to promote tourism in other parts of the country, getting to the Mergui Archipelago can stump even the most dedicated and experienced adventure travelers.
With rare exceptions, foreign visitors are required to get prior approval from the country’s capital, Naypyidaw, a process that can take several weeks, if permission is granted at all. Upon arrival, visitors are charged vague “access fees” equivalent to upward of $100.
Most of the time, visitors are allowed to travel only on expensive, government-approved chartered boats. The government first allowed this kind of travel in 1997 but required that a soldier with a firearm be onboard at all times.
That rule has since changed. “All the guests complained,” said U Ko Pai, who guides foreign divers in the archipelago. Today, the boats must still have a government-approved guide.
Myanmar’s president, U Thein Sein, has pushed through a raft of political and economic changes during his 12 months in office. But those changes have not trickled down to local officials here, says Mr. Ko Pai.
“At the moment, the changes are on the top floors,” Mr. Ko Pai said in an interview. “At lower levels, not many things are changing yet.”
Mr. Phone Win, the investor, says anyone interested in setting up a tourism business in the archipelago must reckon with a thicket of government restrictions and bans. Basic communications equipment like radios and satellite phones are not allowed without a license, and getting one is “very difficult,” he said. The government does not allow access to the area by private planes with pontoons, which could help serve some of the more remote islands.
A handful of islands are off-limits altogether, including some with military bases.
U Aung Lynn Htut, a former major in the Burmese military, says the military has something to hide.
He says he was involved in a military operation ordered by the country’s former dictator, U Than Shwe: a massacre on Christie Island, at the southern edge of the archipelago, in 1998.
Fifty-nine people were killed, including women and children, said Mr. Aung Lynn Htut, who defected to the United States in 2005.
The top military brass were after insurgents smuggling weapons, but the people executed by soldiers were civilians who had come to the island to collect firewood, Mr. Aung Lynn Htut said by e-mail.
Mr. Aung Lynn Htut’s account was partly published last year in The Irrawaddy, a magazine that covers news about Myanmar.
Asked for comment on the allegations, U Ko Ko Hlaing, an adviser to Mr. Thein Sein, said by e-mail that he had “no knowledge” of the alleged massacre and there was no connection between it and the security restrictions. The government limits travel of foreigners to places where the situation is “not so secured,” Mr. Ko Ko Hlaing said without elaborating.
For the employees at the only working hotel on the archipelago, the 22-room Myanmar Andaman Resort on Khayin Khwa Island, the weather, not security, is their main safety concern.
For six months of the year, the Mergui Archipelago is lashed by a monsoon that pushes in from the southwest, forcing the resort to close.
Large swells of as much as 3 meters, or 10 feet, during the monsoon, which starts in May, make travel through the archipelago difficult.
Yet even outside monsoon season, boat journeys can be rough. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the country’s opposition movement, became seasick while campaigning for elections on the few inhabited islands of the archipelago. She needed a week to recuperate from what her doctor described as a combination of motion sickness and exhaustion.
Even by the standards of Myanmar’s poor infrastructure, the archipelago is difficult to reach. Two small airports on the mainland strip closest to the islands, in the cities of Kawthaung and Myeik, have flights on aging aircraft from Yangon, Myanmar’s main city and the primary gateway to the country. But flight schedules are unpredictable.
That could change if tourists reach a critical mass, as in neighboring Thailand. A group of Chinese businessmen traveled through the archipelago in February in search of islands suitable for large hotels, Mr. Ko Pai said. But one major consideration for investors is that many of the smaller islands do not have sources of fresh water.
Local residents in Kawthaung, a short ferry ride from Thailand, say they believe the tourism industry will inevitably grow if Myanmar continues opening up. But it will be several years before the government and the military let down their guard, they say.
There are some signs, literally, that that is already happening.
Newly erected signboards in Kawthaung, where security is more relaxed, have replaced the old messages exhorting Burmese to be patriotic and wary of foreign influences.
The new signs, written in Burmese and English, say, “Warmly Welcome and Take Care of Tourists.”
Photo Credit: The New York Times