Thursday, October 4, 2007

Burma in Crisis: 1988 Part 2

In response to international outcry, Myanmar's Foreign Minister Nyan Win addressed the UN General Assembly last Monday, blaming foreign powers for inciting the protests which led to the bloody crackdown. While the official state death count is 10, according to dissidents, the military regime’s violent response to the demonstrations has led to over 200 deaths and more than 6,000 arrests. Some estimates are much higher, with reliable sources reporting of massacring of students and monks. Hla Win, a mid-ranking major and former intelligence officer, is the most senior official to defect so far, exclaiming, “Many more people have been killed in recent days than you’ve heard about. The bodies can be counted in several thousand.” He fled to Thailand after refusing orders to raid two monasteries, kill the monks, and dump their corpses deep in the jungle.

Nyan Win dismissed accusations of excessive violence, brazenly stating that Myanmar is a victim of neocolonialism, which hampers the self-chosen democratization process of Burma. He called the current situation in Burma a return to “normalcy.”

However, 45 years of dictatorship and the junta’s exclusion of the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), from participating in drafting a new constitution in the National Convention underscore that Burma is nowhere near attaining democracy or national reconciliation. In fact, according to the most recent Worldwide Governance Indicators report, Myanmar’s junta, officially titled the State Peace and Development Council, has been ranked the worst government in the world according to the amount of freedom citizens have to voice opinions and select a government, receiving a score of “zero.” The country is a political, social, and economic mess. In 1960, Burma was the largest rice exporter in the world. Now, 40% of children in Burma are malnourished. Poverty reigns as 90% of the populace makes less than $1 a day. The government spends 2% of its budget on health care and 50% of the national GDP on its military. The education system is in ruins. There are more than 1,600 political prisoners, including 38 elected members of parliament and the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years.

The protests did not stem only from last month’s draconian fuel increases, but decades of repression, human rights abuses, corruption, and civil war. The military never had the popular mandate to rule and refused to recognize the results of the 1990 general election—Burma’s first and only free election—when the NLD won 82% of the parliamentary seats. To suppress ethnic rebels and political dissidents, the junta has destroyed over 3,000 villages (twice the number of villages destroyed in Darfur) in Eastern Burma and has carried out a campaign of rape, wrongful imprisonment, extrajudicial killings, forced labor, forced relocation, and torture. As a result, there are 2 to 4 million internally displaced peoples within Burma, and more than 1 million refugees in neighboring Thailand and Bangladesh.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has conceded that although UN special envoy to Myanmar Ibrahim Gambari exerted the maximum amount of diplomatic pressure possible during his recent four day trip to Burma, the trip was “not a success” . The day after Gambari left, the junta continued to defy international opinion, engaging in a new round of brutal nighttime arrests. Furthermore, amid the recent massacres of students and monks, raiding of monasteries, beatings, and arrests, there are now unconfirmed reports of the junta burning protestors--dead and alive. UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar Paulo Sergio Pinheiro has called the deteriorating situation “an emergency” and urged for diplomacy to bring calm to the country of 47 million.

Nations are increasingly rallying behind Burma’s democracy movement. But a schism between freedom supporting nations and countries with vested commercial interests in Burma will be the most difficult hurdle for the people of Burma to conquer. While the US, EU, Canada, Australia, and Japan have all imposed sanctions, cut diplomatic ties, and or drastically reduced aid to Myanmar, China, India, Russia, and Thailand continue to diplomatically and financially support the SPDC.

Burma is a country rich in natural resources, and its abundant oil and gas deposits, mineral resources, and hydropower potential prove too tempting to resist for many multinational companies, mostly notably American oil giant Chevron and France’s Total SA. Some of the more infamous projects include the Shwe Gas Project, the Yadana Pipeline, and the Salween dams, but few multinationals consider the effects that the development projects will have on the local people. Theses resources are called “conflict resources”, as their harvesting has been linked with forced labor, relocations, and numerous other human rights abuses. Investment and profits line the pockets of the military, allowing them to continuing purchasing arms and military hardware from China, Russia, India, and South Korea.

According to BP PLC’s World Review of Statistics, in 2006, Burma's proven gas reserves alone were 19 trillion cubic feet. If current production rates are maintained, at Thailand’s contract price, the deposits will give the military nearly $2 billion a year in sales over the next 40 years.

At the end of last month, while demonstrations were reaching a head, India’s Oil Minister Murli Deora was in Yangon signing oil and gas exploration contracts on behalf of state-owned ONGC Videsh Ltd.

Last January, China and Russia used their UN Security Council veto powers to defeat what would have been the first UN Resolution on Burma, claiming that the situation in Burma is an internal matter and does not threaten international peace and security. However, they discounted the effects of Burmese-based insurgents on India, refugees surging into Thailand and Bangladesh, and the universally acknowledged fact of the complicity of Burma’s junta in the international heroin trade.

While the Chinese Foreign Ministry has called on the military junta for restraint in dealing with the protests, China has come under fire by refusing to condemn Myanmar and for ruling out sanctions. As Myanmar’s largest diplomatic, financial, and military supporter, the Asian superpower can to use its clout to bring about change. But unless it can engineer a bloodless coup, inaction is likely. China is in a particularly compromising position, as, with the Olympics less than a year away, the CCP is trying to clean up its image. China already has to deal with allegations of persecuting Falun Gong practitioners and ethnic minorities, not to mention controversially supporting abusive and unpopular regimes such as Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge and President Omar al-Bashir’s government in Khartoum. China cannot afford to be perceived by the international community as supportive of a 1988 or Tiananmen style crackdown in Burma, should one occur.

The UN Human Rights Council has condemned the SPDC, but the international community must do more to bring about social change in Burma, where citizens have been suffering under the yoke of tyranny for close to five decades. UN ineffectiveness, China’s unflinching support of the junta, and irresponsible investing practices are to blame. The warning signs of additional casualties are there. The question is, will the UN act or will this be a repeat of August 8, 1988, or worse? October 5 signals the National Campus Day of Action for Burma, and October 6 is the Global Day of Action. On these days, the global community must stand in solidarity with the monks and civilians who are so painfully suffering. The free and democratic Burma that Aung San envisioned in the 1940’s can be achieved, but only if people within and outside Burma rally together.

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