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24 Jan, 2015

ATF 2003 Flashback: Iraq war and the journalists who saw tomorrow

Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar — When the ASEAN Tourism Forum was held in January 2003 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the dogs of war were preparing to be unleashed in Iraq to weed out “weapons of mass destruction”. The United States was putting together a “coalition of the willing” to attack the country and dismantle former dictator Saddam Hussein’s lethal weaponry.

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A well-coordinated, well-oiled campaign, known today as the weapons of mass deception, was under way to convince the global public that Iraq did in fact have weapons of mass destruction.

Not everybody was buying those lies. Many anti-war demonstrations were taking place in capitals around the world.

Because wars are never good for travel & tourism, it was important for the travel & tourism industry to take a stand against it. As such, I wrote a petition for submission to the ASEAN tourism leaders to make a public statement opposing the war.

The petition was signed by 45 travel trade journalists who covered the ATF 2003. I preserved that document over the years. Pls read it and see the full list of signatories in the PDF format image alongside.

We turned out to be right.

In March 2003, two months after the ATF, the US-led coalition of the willing attacked Iraq. Along with the impact of the SARS scare in the first half of 2003, the Iraq war saw that year experiencing the only decline in total visitor arrivals into ASEAN since 1991.

No weapons of mass destruction were ever found.

Source: ASEAN website

The coalition of the willing has since packed up and left Iraq, leaving a country in a total mess. One conflict has been replaced by another. As the casualty count of innocent people mounts by the day, and the proponents of that 2003 war walk free, this petition is a reminder that at least one section of the travel industry had the courage to speak up and speak out.

The reminder is all the more important because this year’s ATF, 12 years after Phnom Penh, includes the word “Peace” in its theme, arguably a first for ASEAN tourism.

Maintaining peace first and foremost requires thwarting those who maliciously seek to disrupt it. That includes both terrorists and state terrorists.

The travel & tourism industry can either walk the peace talk, or keep its head sunk in sand.