International pressure has created a role for image consultants in this military dictatorship
ON NOVEMBER 17, 1997 the ruling military regime in Burma, The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The move was seen as an attempt appease to ASEAN pressure to improve its image. Three months have passed and pro-democracy Burmese groups call the reforms "purely cosmetic." The regime wants to seem to be cracking down on corruption and drug production and fostering a healthy economy. However, this image makeover is fooling no one. National League for Democracy members continue to be imprisoned and the SPDC has threatened crackdowns on "those elements harmful to the well-being of the nation" (i.e. pro-democracy/anti-SPDC forces).
After gaining independence in 1948, Burma experienced a short-lived quasi-democracy and then fell under a military dictatorship in 1962. Thrown into isolation, the country slid into poverty and despair. Most of the non-Burman ethnic nationalities such as the Karen, Kachin, Shan, and Mon, were already engaged in an armed fight for independence and freedom from any central Burman rule. In 1988, students, laborers, and other Burmese peoples rose up. Their peaceful demonstrations ended in an unprovoked military massacre in which approximately 10,000 unarmed Burmese were slaughtered. General Ne Win, who had ruled for over three decades, handed the reins over to a 21-member council, SLORC.
In 1990, in response to pressure, the country had its first democratic elections in almost half a century. Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the independence hero of Burma, and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won an overwhelming 82 percent of the seats, the SLORC regime receiving less than five percent. Caught off guard, SLORC refused to recognize the results and imprisoned many of the victorious party's members. Suu Kyi, who had already been under house arrest for nearly a year, was kept there until June 1995. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to bring democracy to Burma.
Today, most of Burma's 45 million people continue to suffer under brutal dictatorship, under a regime condemned by the United Nations and Amnesty International for such violations of human rights as forced labor (which accounts for three percent of its GDP), systematic rape, torture, imprisonment, summary executions, and brutal persecution. Most ethnic nationality forces have now agreed to be a part of a federalist state and are fighting alongside the NLD to end the dictatorship and bring peace.
Despite having signed cease-fire agreements with the regime, the ethnic peoples continue to bear the brunt of the worst abuses being carried out by the regime. The result has been a continuous flow of refugees into neighboring countries - 120,000 in Thailand, 50,000 in India and thousands more in Bangladesh and China.
Once the rice bowl of Asia, Burma is now one of the least developed countries in the world. Canadian companies are in partnership with the SPDC to profit from its rich natural resources - gold, oil, gas, and old teak forests. Foreign businesses justify their presence in the country as a "constructive engagement" approach to reforming Burma. Yet foreign investment is aiding the regime's brutal rule. Since Burma's economy was opened to international business in 1988, oppression has escalated and the economy has gone from bad to worse. Aung San Suu Kyi and the ethnic nationalities ask the international community not to do business in Burma until there has been dramatic political reform. The regime spends 30 times more on the military than on health care (60% of the national budget). This is why pro-democracy forces discourage foreign investment. As Suu Kyi says, "Until we have a system that guarantees a rule of law and basic democratic institutions, no amount of foreign aid or investment will benefit our people. Profits from business enterprises will merely go towards enriching a small, already very privileged elite."
Not only does foreign investment give the regime the hard currency it needs, but some of these joint venture projects have come under fire for being connected to forced labor and forced relocation practices and damaging environmental impacts.
Recently, the SPDC launched "Visit Myanmar Year" to attract tourists. Using forced labor, roads, railways, airports, and bridges were built to facilitate easier travel. Aung San Suu Kyi has asked tourists not to visit her country until it is free and democratic. The SPDC had to reduce its projections from 500,000 to 100,000 visitors, due in part to international awareness campaigns. The garment industry, with one of the lowest wages in Asia (roughly eight cents per hour) is another source of hard currency for the SPDC. The regime's arms procurement agency owns it; the $10 million worth of "Made in Myanmar" clothes exported to Canada in 1997 directly supported SPDC's proliferation of weapons.
Canada's drug problem is also linked to Burma. Burma is the world's largest producer and exporter of heroin, with much of the profit being channeled into SPDC state enterprises. Only with dramatic political reform will any sustainable attempts be possible in order to curb this illegal drug trade.
An international support network has emerged to assist the democracy movement. Canadian Friends of Burma (CFOB) was founded in 1991 to alert and mobilize Canadians to participate in the international efforts. The Internet been the main tool to connect a world-wide network of Burma groups and work together to inform and engage their respective societies about the situation in Burma, and raise consumer awareness about Burmese-made goods. Already international consumer pressure has induced such companies as Pepsi, Texaco, Eddie Bauer, Liz Claiborne, Levi Strauss, and Petro-Canada to leave Burma. CFOB wants the Canadian government to impose investment sanctions against Burma, to stem the flow of dollars into the SPDC's pockets. In August 1997 Canada removed Burma from its General Preferential Treatment list, thus denying them tariff privileges, and placed it on the Area Control List, requiring a special permit for all goods and services destined for Burma, for which only humanitarian items would be granted. But Canadian mining companies do the lion's share of Canadian business with the generals, outside the reach of consumer boycotts. Canada must take stronger measures in order to pressure the SPDC to enter into tripartite talks with Suu Kyi and the ethnic nationalities.
One of CFOB's most recent concerns is the possible repatriation of 120,000 Burmese refugees in camps along the Thai-Burma border and (due to the Asian economic crisis) the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Burmese migrant workers in the region. All of them can expect a life of impoverishment and oppression if they return and those who are politically active will face imprisonment or worse. CFOB worked with the Vancouver-based Burmese Democratic Organization to get Burma on the People's Summit agenda at APEC to highlight the effects that global trade is having on the democracy struggle in Burma.
For more information about Burma's struggle and CFOB's work, contact us at 145 Spruce St., suite 206, Ottawa, ON K1R 6P1. (613) 237-8056. Fax (613) 563-0017. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Internet: www.web.net/~cfob
Robin Black is Events Coordinator with CFOB. Christine Harmston is Coordinator of CFOB.