Tourism, dispossession and erasure in conflict zones and post-conflict contexts

The notion that tourism, militarism and conflict can go hand in hand may seem rather remote to most tourists. Yet, recently, a number of studies have looked into tourism’s controversial entanglements with war, conflict and militarism (Weaver, 2011; Gonzalez, 2013; Lisle, 2016). War zones have often produced a particularly problematic brand of tourism, especially in tourist enclaves prepared exclusively for soldiers during their ‘rest & recreation’ phases, such as Thailand’s Pattaya beach area for the US military during the Vietnam war (cf. Lisle, 2016). Today, the Thai military holds several properties across the kingdom that are used as recreation facilities for its armed forces and their relatives. In her book Securing Paradise, Gonzalez (2013) shows how militarism and tourism have been interwoven in Hawai’i and the Philippines, thereby empowering the United States to advance its geopolitical and economic interests in the Pacific. She argues that “tourism — with its structuring ideas and practices of mobility and consumption - is the perfect partner to militarism’s claims to security” (Gonzalez, 2013, p. 4).

While tourism has a potential role to play in rehabilitating areas devastated by genocide, war, and other types of armed conflict (e.g., Alluri, 2009; Causevic and Lynch, 2011; Novelli, Morgan and Nibigira, 2012; Neef and Grayman, 2018), in many cases the military - aiming to sustain its economic interests, maintain its territorial control and keep its soldiers busy in more peaceful times - has played a much more controversial part, including the forceful taking of land from former adversaries in civil conflicts. The contentious role of the military in conflict and post-conflict tourism development will be more closely examined hereafter for the cases of Myanmar (formerly Burma), Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The final case examines how tourism is instrumentalised in the on-going Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Tourism, displacement and the military in Myanmar (Burma)

For more than half a century (from 1962—2011), Myanmar (formerly Burma) was subjected to authoritarian rule. Following an uprising in 1988 that was brutally crushed by the military, the country was ruled for ten years by the so-called State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), until it was replaced by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997 (Henderson, 2003). One of the first major policy actions of the SLORC post-1988 was to relocate hundreds of thousands of people from the then-capital Rangoon, later renamed Yangon by the regime (Rhoads, 2018). While the primary objectives of these forced relocations were to establish ‘law and order’, build new infrastructure, and erase “sites and communal memories associated with past resistance against the state” (Seekins, 2011, p. 161), they also had the welcome side effect of beautifying and securing the city to appeal to the foreign tourist market (Parnwell, 1998).

Rapid tourism development was high on the agenda of the post-1988 military regime for both economic and political reasons; it was in urgent need for foreign currency and international recognition (Henderson, 2003; Clifton, Hampton and Jeyacheya, 2018). As the SLORC lacked the financial resources to build a viable tourism industry, it sought foreign investment and resorted to forced labour (Parnwell, 1998). Hundreds of thousands of people (including children, pregnant women and the elderly) were coerced by the military junta to build airports, upgrade railways and restore roads as well as temples, palaces and other potential tourism sites, especially in preparation for the Visit Myanmar Year (1996-1997) campaign (Yokota, 1996; Parnwell, 1998). Shackled slave labourers were witnessed working on an airport extension in today’s Pathein, the capital city of the Ayeyarwady Division (Mahr and Sutcliffe, 1996). Henderson (2003) reported that the number of airports in Myanmar increased from 43 in 1988 to 66 in 2001. The construction of the Ye-Tavoy railway - enabling tourist-access to southern Myanmar — involved forced labour of over 200,000 people and cost the lives of about 300 workers due to the appalling working conditions (Mahr and Sutcliffe, 1996).

Confiscation of land and forced resettlements were other important components of the tourism strategy of the military junta and its cronies (see Table 6.1). In coastal areas of the then Irrawaddy Division and Arakan State, villagers lost their farmland, gardens, coconut groves, homes and guesthouses to large-scale beach hotel development between 1990 and the early 2000s (Thitsar, 2013; Soe and Ko, 2014). Other areas that were identified by the regime as major tourist centres in the 1990s were Mandalay, Bagan and Taung-gyi near Inle Lake, where evictions and state-led land grabbing were also common. Members of the military elites and their cronies have had major stakes in those tourism development projects, and for many years foreign tourists were only allowed to stay in government-owned or government-licensed accommodation, while homestays in communities were prohibited (Henderson, 2003; Zhou, 2005).

In Bagan, one of the most stunning cultural landscapes in Myanmar, up to 5,000 people - many of whom had been traditional caretakers of cultural heritage sites - were forcibly removed from the grounds of hundreds of ancient temples and pagodas in the early 1990s (Pilger, 1996). Disregarding advice from international experts and even its own tourism agency, the SLORC believed that the relocation would help them secure a nomination for

Table 6.1 Prominent examples of tourism-related land confiscations and displacements in Myanmar

Township (division, region or state)


Affected area/ population

Impact on communities

Chaung Tha (Irrawaddy Division; Ayeryawady Kegion)


615 acres (249 hectares)

Confiscation of farmland and gardens with inadequate compensation

Bagan (Mandalay

Division; Mandalay



4,000-5000 people

Forced relocation to infertile land, confiscation of farmland, bulldozing of houses

Ngwe Saung (Irrawaddy Division; Ayeryawady Kegion)

Early 1990s-2000

Seven villages

Confiscation of farmland with inadequate compensation, relocation of communities

Thandaung (Karen State; Kayin State)


Up to 200 ethnic minority villages

Ethnic minority groups forcibly relocated to live in model tourist villages in the periphery' of Yangon

Lampi Marine

National Park (Tanintharyi Kegion)


400 indigenous seafaring people, 2O5km”

Indigenous Moken deprived of their livelihoods as subsistence fishers through the declaration of on-fishing zones, relocation of at least one community

Ngapali (Arakan State;

Rakhine State)


36 acres (15 hectares)

Confiscation of farmland without compensation, dismantling of village guesthouses

Nyaungshwe (Inle Lake, Shan State)


600 acres (243 hectares)

Confiscation of farmland with inadequate compensation, seven villagers charged with obstruction

Tada-U (Mandalay

Division; Mandalay



2,000 acres (809 hectares)

Forced land acquisition at inadequate land prices

Source: Pilger, 1996; Henderson, 2003; Thitsar, 2013; Soe and Ko, 2014; Aye, 2015; Clifton, Hampton and Jeyacheya, 2018.

a UNESCO listing in 1996 but their proposal was turned down at the time (Kraak, 2017; Tha, 2019). Subsequently, the regime opened up the landscape for unfettered tourism development. The so-called ‘Property Zone’ of the Bagan cultural landscape is now dotted with a total of 85 hotels built by military cronies and international hotel chains during the regime of the military junta until 2011 and the military-backed transitional administration of U Thein Sein from 2011 to 2016. Just before handing over the country’s government to the elected National League for Democracy (NLD) under Aung Sang Suu Kyi in March 2016, U Thein Sein’s outgoing administration approved 42 new hotel construction projects in the ‘Property Zone’ (Tha, 2019). Some of the hotels — such as the Hilton Bagan and the Aureum Palace Hotel - even have century-old temples within their compounds (Tha, 2019). Yet, as the new government was finally successful in its bid for Bagan’s UNESCO world heritage status in 2019, it had to commit to moving all hotels from the ‘Property Zone’ to a specially designated ‘Hotel Zone’ by 2028 (Chau and Htet, 2019).

Land acquisitions by the state for tourism as a ‘public purpose’ are facilitated by a hybrid legal framework (see Box 6.1) that combines elements from the colonial era, such as the 1894 Land Acquisition Act, with investment-friendly legislation and repressive new land laws enacted under the military regime’s successor government (2011—2016). Particularly the Farmland Law and the Vacant, Fallow, and Virgin Law (VFV) — both promulgated in 2012 — provide the regulatory basis for further land grabs and make existing ones lawful (Transnational Institute, 2013; Scurrah, Hirsch and Woods, 2015). The Farmland Law only recognises property rights on officially registered land with valid land use certificates (LUCs) which are unattainable for most smallholder farmers, as the registration process is either extremely slow or non-existent (Oberndorf, 2012). Even if a farmer has access to land registration procedures, the burden of proof concerning the pre-existence of the right to use the land is on her or him and s/he also has to demonstrate ‘proper’ use. The VFV regards all untitled lands - including forestlands and land that is actually being used — as ‘wasted assets’ and gives the government the right to redefine them as ‘vacant, fallow or virgin’ and subsequently reallocate those lands to foreign or domestic investors, including for tourism purposes (Carter, 2015). Land confiscation may affect swidden land, communally managed pastures, village forests and fishponds, which are crucial for rural people’s food security and livelihoods but are neither formally registered nor mapped.

Box 6.1 National land legislation enabling land confiscation by the state and private investors in Myanmar

The Land Acquisition Act (1894)

Hailing from British colonial rule, the act continues to be the major legal instrument used by the Myanmar government to confiscate land; has provisions for appropriate processes of land acquisition including compensation procedures, but in reality, these were mostly disregarded under military rule.

2008 Constitution

Identifies the state as the ultimate owner of the land in Myanmar; gives the government the right to acquire land from its citizens against their will.

2012 Farmland Law

Stipulates that use rights on farmland need to be registered, which gives the owner a land use certificate (LUC) representing tenured title; creates a situation where anyone without an LUC no longer possesses legal rights to use land and can be evicted; creates the Farmland Administration Body (FAB), chaired by the Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation, which has sole power to allocate land use rights; does not subject the FAB to the reach of the judicial system, which means that decisions made by FAB are final and cannot be appealed in a court.

2012 Vacant, Fallow, and Virgin Lands Management Law (VFV Law)

Reclassifies ‘unoccupied’ land as ‘vacant, fallow and abandoned’ and makes it available as farmland; declares ‘reserved forests, grazing ground and fishery pond land’ and ‘uncultivated’ land as ‘virgin land’ and makes it available for a variety of alternative uses; allows the Central Committee to allocate such ‘vacant, fallow or virgin’ land for use in large-scale agriculture, mining, tourism and other purposes permitted by the government; permits the allocation of up to 50,000 acres (about 20,234 hectares) to foreign investors in the form of long-term leases.

2012 Foreign Investment Law

Allowed foreign investors to lease private land with an initial investment term of 30 years, twice extendable for periods of 15 years; offered tax breaks to foreign investors; enabled them to establish businesses without the need for local partners.

2015 Myanmar Investment Law

Combines the 2012 Foreign Investment Law and the 2013 Myanmar Citizens Investment Law; alters the mandate of the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC); adds some nominal human rights protections to future foreign investment projects.

Source: Oberndorf, 2012; Carter, 2015; Scurrah, Hirsch and Woods, 2015;

Neef, 2016

One of the particularities of Myanmar is the presence of ‘Special Regions’ or autonomous zones (Than, 2016). In the first decade (1989-1999) of the military regime, ceasefire agreements were signed with 26 armed groups, with 13 of them being subsequently granted Special Region status (Than, 2015). Most of these Special Regions, including Kachin State, Karen (or

Kayin) State and Shan State, are home to diverse Indigenous groups, referred to as ‘ethnic nationalities’ by the Myanmar government. Tourism development in these sensitive borderland areas of northern and northeastern Myanmar has been employed by the military regime to tighten its control over territory and people. In Shan State, for instance, the then leader of the military junta, General Than Shwe, ordered the destruction of Kengtung Palace in late 1991 (Hurng, 2020). The palace had been built by a Shan prince in 1906. At the time when the British Empire invaded the area, Kengtung was the largest and most significant Shan principality in present-day Shan State. After blowing up the palace, the military regime leased the land to a private company for a period of 70 years and a sum of USS138,000 to build the Amazing Kyaing Tong Resort (Hurng, 2020). Emboldened by the nascent démocratisation process in Myanmar, local community leaders collected support for a petition to the State Counsellor Aung Sang Suu Kyi in 2019 demanding the return of the land to the Shan people. Yet the Vice-Minister of Hotels and Tourism was quoted saying that it was impossible to transfer the land back to the community before the end of the lease, i.e. in 2062 (Hurng, 2020).

Cross-border casino tourism has become a particularly prominent feature in Myanmar’s Special Regions (e.g. Than, 2015). Nearly all customers come from neighbouring China and Thailand where gambling is illegal. While gambling was prohibited even for foreigners in Myanmar until 2019, Special Regions can set up their own rules and have legalised gambling for cross-border tourists. As exemplified in Box 6.2, casino development often goes along with large-scale land acquisitions and forced relocations. Similar processes have been recorded in Laos and Cambodia where international casino tourism has also experienced a boom (Than, 2015; Sims, 2017).

Box 6.2 International casino tourism in the Myanmar-Thai borderlands

Casino tourism has become pervasive in Myanmar since the early 2000s, often combined with the development of megaresorts and even entire new city projects. One such megaresort - embedded in an international ‘IT industrial city’ project - has been planned since 2017 along the Myanmar-Thai border by the Yatai International Holding Group which is registered in Hong Kong and headquartered in Bangkok. The multinational corporation claims to have made an initial investment of US$500 million and anticipates an overall investment of a staggering US$15 billion for villas, an international airport, casinos and various other tourist attractions, including an ‘ethnic shopping mall’ and a ‘Safari World’, on an area of 12,000 hectares (29,653 acres), branded as the ‘Myanmar Yatai Shwe Kokko Special Economic Zone’. In September 2017, the company signed a partnership agreement with Colonel Chit Thu, the commander of the Karen Border Guard Force (KBGF), an armed group backed by the Myanmar military.

The Shwe Kokko area had been at the centre of a long-standing conflict between the Burmese government army and the Karen National Union (KNU) who controlled most of this borderland area until the mid-1970s. The last stronghold of the KNU was seized by the Myanmar military in 1995 with support from the newly formed Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) which had split away from the KNU. In 2010, the DKBA was transformed into the KBGF under the Myanmar Army. For the Yatai International Holding Group, signing an agreement with the KBGF commander meant to ensure the protection of its large-scale development project against community protests and obstructions.

Local communities in Shwe Kokko learned about the new project in early 2017, when the KBGF authorities informed them in a meeting in the village temple that their lands would be confiscated for a ‘new city expansion’ development, without providing any details of the nature of the project. Community members had no choice but to accept the promised compensation of about US$400 per hectare of confiscated land and between US $3,000 and US$5,000 for their houses, depending on their size and quality. While local people were told that the project would provide employment opportunities that would make up for their loss of livelihoods derived from farming, thousands of Chinese workers have been brought in for the construction of tourism and other infrastructure.

Reportedly, the investors have obtained a land use permit for 70 years, with a possible extension to 99 years, and are exempted from income tax for the first ten years of operation. Both the duration of the lease and the duration of the tax break are higher than officially permitted under Myanmar law. There is also confusion over the legally approved scale of the project. According to local media, the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) approved only US$22.5 million in investments for the construction of nearly 60 villas on slightly over ten hectares of land. Claims by the company that it is part of the Chinese government’s Belt and Road Initiative and a trilateral China-Thailand-Myanmar economic corridor have been called into question, as Chinese authorities have recently cracked down on Chinese-operated casino businesses in Laos and Myanmar.

While Myanmar promulgated a new Gambling Law in 2019, legalising casino operations that cater for foreigners only, the Myanmar government reportedly denied that it permitted gambling activities in the Shew Kokko area. Yet it seems obvious that the casino business will have a twofold advantage for the Myanmar military, by solidifying their control of this strategic border area and by reaping their share of the expected profits from non-transparent casino operations.

Source: Nyein, 2019; KPSN, 2020; Lwin, 2020

Casino cities have been at the centre of conflict between the central government and separatist groups. In 2009, the Myanmar military attacked the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in Laukkaing city, the capital of the Kokang self-administered zone at the border with China, which hosts several casinos (International Crisis Group, 2019). The attack forced the long-standing commander of the city to flee across the border into China with his soldiers and an estimated 37,000 displaced civilians (Kramer, 2009). Following the expulsion of the MNDAA, the military junta installed a pro-government Border Guard Force to administer the casino city (International Crisis Group, 2019). It is obvious that for Myanmar’s ruling elite, casino tourism has played a dual role of (1) extending their influence over ethnic nationalities in semi-autonomous restive states and (2) cashing in on the enormous profits that can be made from the gambling business.

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