Alison Wright? A dynamo. A passionate photographer. A tour guide to remote places. She showed slides from and about Burma and Tibet. To a gathering of "Partners in Responsible Tourism". At a wonderful late '30s white house nestled high in the Berkeley Hills bordering a redwooded canyon with the faint trickle of a stream as its shruti, its drone reminding us of God's many presences.
Responsible tourism? Question: given the repressive regimes ruthlessly dominating both Burma and Tibet, is it responsible tourism to organize and to lead tours there? Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese, her father led the late '40s independence movement and was assassinated, elected leader refused her office by a military junta, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, recently released from six years confinement in her home, says to avoid Burma during this year which the military regime has dedicated to attracting tourism and international investment and world organization memberships. The Dalai Lama of Tibet says to go if you will as tourism allows more people to witness the tragedies of Chinese occupation.
Alison Wright shows pictures of stunning beauty, excellent technical qualities and high aesthetic sensibilities capturing golden pagodas and great monasteries, beautiful faces, great spaces and survival. Survival. Such abiding courage. We admire resolute peasants throwing straw on high with wooden tools as part of a very basic threshing process. No machinery for them. Only labor which would put any of us in the hospital within minutes. No choice. To eat, do the work.
A refugee camp in Thailand houses Burmese driven from their homes. Dr. Cynthia works. Doctors without Borders hide in fear of their lives and they work. A one-legged Burmese man symbolizes the near ubiquitous international horrors of land mines. A dirty faced Tibetan boy shows us the stark conditions of life for him and his people named as subhuman by the invading Han Chinese. It all reads like Manifest Destiny in the American conquering of its West and fleshing out of borders in reference to Mexico and Canada.
The greed of the dominating regimes for foreign currencies with which to finance themselves in repressing their dominated peoples is fueled by every tourism dollar, franc, pound, piaster, lira and ruble spent. Is it better to satisfy our greed for voyeurism and comfortable adventure at this possible cost to others less blessed by material splendors? The Dalai Lama, who carries his compassionate wisdom to nearly every person and situation, says we can have our travel if nothing will dissuade us. He asks that we witness what we see and talk about it back home. Very Christian of him.
Aung San Suu Kyi asks us not to support the current marketing and public relations schemes of her country's brutal regime. Come again another time. One apologist says at least some of the money spent ends up in people's hands. A responsible tour provider says his company will avoid Burmese tours unless someone really wants to go. After all, if we don't do it, someone else will.
Land mines. Oil. Minerals. Trees. Other issues among myriad issues. In Nigeria, Shell Oil and the others supply the local military and police with the weapons they turn on the Ogoni peoples. They are upset by their homelands being ravaged and polluted irrevocably by the oil companies. Ken Saro Wiwa, poet and Ogoni leader, is hung by the neck until dead brazenly in defiance of concerted international protest and weeping nannies like me.
I don't buy Shell products. Or Texaco. Or Chevron. In Burma, Unocal, a major source of San Francisco Bay pollution, leads an international consortium, a nicer word than cartel, to develop oil fields which will fuel our cars and enrich the regime. The infrastructure of roads and railroads to these oil fields is reported as being built with child and slave labor. I don't buy Unocal 76, either. And I know that virtually all the gasoline sold at Bay Area gas stations originates at either Shell, or Chevron or Unocal refineries no matter what brand name it is sold under. Hypocrisy: pretended sanctity. Mine.
At one time I accepted contracts with various agencies or contractors of the United States government. Some of them led me into the darker aspects of our government. The parts of us which directly or indirectly support the grimmer regimes of the world. The parts of us which surface in great ugliness and greater depravity in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and numberless hamlets in remote areas of Southeast Asia. The parts of us which turn a deaf ear to countless deaths in Africa and Asia while blasting to smithereens any threats to mideastern oil. The parts of us which refuse to join in condemning and banning land mines. The parts of us which keep us on our jobs producing land mines and atom bombs and stealth bombers and weapons arsenals beyond calculation in ruined lives, destroyed peoples, ravaged lands, raped earth, dying planet. The parts of us which allow us to create and to sell tours to the sanitized five star hotels of Burma and the Holiday Inn of Lhasa.
Why not create tours to allow witness of the devastation in which we directly and indirectly participate by keeping our jobs, by buying the products of the savage capitalists whose dividends finance our luxury, by paying our taxes, by our callousness to homelessness at home and our collective ruthlessness abroad? Why not go to the borders of Burma, to Thailand, to Bangladesh to see the devastated peoples living in great danger and who still smile for our lens? Too dangerous? Too ugly? Too real?
Why not incorporate in our tours involvement with the large refugee communities living in the Bay Area. Trickle some of our money into their hands. We have strong and beautiful Tibetan and Burmese communities right here. We have devastated peoples of our own savaged by our forms of indifference and unseen brutalities all around us. We can lead tours to the rural areas of the USA becoming more and more third worldly every year. We can go to towns abandoned by international logging companies, by mining transnationals, by agribusiness, by unfettered and increasingly savage capitalists of all breeds.
Come off it! Who gives a damn when it really comes down to it? Alison Wright cares deeply. Takes pictures which we look at and admire never knowing the stenches, never feeling the ooze, never knowing what makes life go on for desperate millions world-wide who are beyond our knowing--beyond our acting. Land mines are still made. Tours are still organized. People pay and get paid. Somebody will surely do it if others don't.
For this I need wisdom and compassion. Not to worry, though, I'll get over it.
Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Milo G. Clark 1996. All rights reserved.