Thursday, October 25, 2007

BURMA: Dialogue or Die

Myat Soe
Mizzima News( )
It is evident that the end of political oppression in Burma, which includes unconditional release of all political prisoners, must be a precondition for dialogue even though it is unrealistic to expect the regime to dismantle the system overnight. Fundamental changes are required before any normalization of the relationship between opposition groups and rulers is possible.

Lifting the state of emergency and rescinding unjust laws, relaxing censorship and political restrictions on the NLD and other political groups, and most importantly, the unconditional release of NLD and student leaders, will go a long way in resolving the political deadlock in Burma. If the regime is to show seriousness and commitment to solve the country's problem, they must move forward quickly in the process of fundamental change. Failing to implement change will lend support to the call for additional sanctions and legal actions against the oppressive regime.
Recently, the NBR (National Bureau of Asian Research, based in Seattle), the ICG (International Crisis Group, based in Brussels) and the regime’s handpicked scholars came out with a statement contending that sanctions hurt innocent people; they do not hurt the ruling junta. But, those pro- SPDC lobbyists and so-called Burma experts were not daring to speak the truth. They concealed the real facts and did not address the root causes of Burma’s conflict.
The fact of the matter is that it is not just because of economic sanctions that people in Burma face horrendous hardship. It is the regime’s spending on political oppression on its own people and mismanagement in general that empties the coffers. There are currently more than 1300 political prisoners in the notorious jails, over one million victims and displaced persons are in the border areas and in the war zones of Burma, and 4 million citizens have left their own country since 1988. In fact, the country has been suffering from brain drain since the1960's because of the military rulers' hostile attitude toward the educated. A whole generation has lost the opportunity to receive proper education. In addition, the country has been deprived of educated, human capital that is crucial in rebuilding the country. A case in point is the increasingly severe shortage of qualified teachers. Furthermore, the country's economy has been plummeting to the bottom while inflation is skyrocketing. The only progress that is made is in official corruption.
Additionally, according to United Nations statistics, the regime spends 222% more on military spending than it does on health and education combined. All social services in Burma, including the country’s health and educational systems, have suffered terribly over 40 years of military dictatorship. Basic infrastructure has been neglected and priorities are decided and funds allocated on a military-ideological basis rather than real need. The military regime’s spending priorities focus on procuring weapons and expanding its army. The regime vastly expanded the size of the army (from around 180,000 men under arms in 1988 to 340,000 in late 1993) and in 1990 purchased new weapons from China in a $1.2 billion deal that included jet fighters, tanks, and naval patrol boats. Additional weapon purchases from Russia (MIG fighter jets), India, Ukrain, and other countries have been significant as well. It was reported that Beijing provided Rangoon with loans and grants to help the latter escape its financial and economic crises. The most recent Chinese aid was a $200 million loan in late August. (See “Business & Economy”,; “Will the Road to Rangoon Pass Through Beijing”, A report by Justice for Human Rights in Burma (JHB); and “Beijing's Road to Rangoon Paved With Impediments”, .)

This leads to the question of where the junta’s money comes from? According to available figures, Gas Authority of India Ltd.(GAIL) signed a MOU in 1998 with Brown& Root, Cairn Energy and Shell to bring in 28 million cubic meters per day of natural gas from Burma to India. Bilateral trade between India and Burma was around $216 million in 1999/2000(April-March). Indian investment in Burma accounted for about only 1.1%, amounting to US $ 4.5 million, while ASEAN countries’ investment in Burma accounted for 50 percent of Burma’s $7.3 billion in foreign investment. The CII (Confederation of Indian Industry) had proposed to have a target of $2 billion in bilateral trade between the two countries by the year 2003. (See “A Question of Democracy”, Burma File p.500-509.)
In July 1992, the French oil company Total signed a contract with the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) to appraise and develop the Yadana oil field. In early 1993 the commercial viability of the field was established, and the U.S. Company Unocal joined the joint-venture contract. From early 1992, negotiations were held between MOGE and the Thai national PTT oil company to ship any gas discovered directly to Thailand, via a pipeline, which would enter Thailand at Nat Ei Daung (Ban I-tong). The pipeline was completed, on time, on July 1, 1998, and the Petroleum Authority of Thailand will pay $400 million a year for the delivery of 15.8 million cubic liters of natural gas a day once final construction of a gas turbine in Thailand is completed. (See "Yadana Test Flows Delayed Two Weeks," The Bangkok Post, June 30, 1998.)
While the ruling junta is selling many millions of cubic liters of natural gas a day to its neighbors, many cities in Burma are in darkness every night. While the ruling junta is purchasing new weapons from China and Russia and increasing its military spending, many people are dying of hunger and an AIDS epidemic devastating Burma. Beyond a doubt, the ruling junta is selling the nation’s natural resources for themselves and their families to prosper and ignore the welfare of the people who are the true owners of the country.
More to the point, Burma posted significant economic growth right after the 1990 election till the mid 1990’s due to businesses believing there would be a stable political future ahead. Many companies poured in investments to gain a foothold the resource rich land. Despite being ruled by one of the worst human rights offenders in the world, 370 companies linked with the junta. Some of the country's business links remain and it continues to receive investment from well-known international companies. Burma's trade with neighboring India, China, and Thailand is solid. Conventional and border trade with the three neighbors totaled a trade volume amounting to about two billion US dollars in the fiscal year 2001-02.

However, the rosy picture of political stability turned out to be an illusion. The realities map out arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of opposition leaders and students, forced exile or resignation, harassment of the leadership in most uncivilized ways, state-sponsored terrorism against the countries own people, and convening of a sham national convention which is supposed to rubber-stamp a military-imposed constitution. Consequently, the junta has shot themselves in their feet by refusing to handover power to the winners of 1990 election.
Sanctions are not the end game in bringing down an abusive regime. They are only one set among a variety of means. Targeted sanctions directly impacted the regime’s leaders, by freezing their assets and preventing their international travel, without damage to ordinary Burmese citizens. The experience has taught us that certain types of sanctions, under certain conditions, offer the greatest promise of success in countering abusive human rights practices. We must advocate sanctions that are targeted, and designed to have the greatest impact on an abusive regime by depriving it of the tools and means of repression, while avoiding or minimizing any negative impact on the general civilian population.
The sanctions must be inspired by principle, not political expedience, and this should be reflected in benchmarks rooted in international norms and standards, which, if reached, would trigger a lifting of sanctions. The often-cited example of such graduated sanctions was the Reagan Administration’s response to martial law in Poland; tough sanctions were gradually lifted in return for various positive steps by the Polish government, from the release of political prisoners to the formal lifting of martial law. (See “The Role of Sanctions”,
The regime’s handpicked scholars and so-called Burma experts must address the root causes of the conflict in Burma and should not cover up the truth. They should encourage the regime to commit to the process of change, to be anxious to move quickly and determined to pursue the conclusion, rather than simple lobbying to lift the sanctions. A process of fundamental change would only allow our nation an opportunity to re-enter the international community and embark on a more sustainable development path.

Lastly, the concerned nations must call for UN Security Council to step up to Burma’s issue. The U.N must more need to be done by not only condemnation but also effective actions to the Burmese regime's brutality and insincerity. The U.S government still has much leverage to put pressures on the regime in Burma and should lead the charge. Both the administration and lawmakers should be more pro-active and more focused on Burma. Whether or not Burma has their strategic interests in the region, indeed, the Burma will become a strategic and potential location to pave inroads to unexploited market of hinterland of China and India. On the other hand, supporting state-sponsored terrorism is not the Asian value. The ASEAN should not sit on the fence. The whole world has witnessed the ineffectual approaches of ASEAN and its hypocritical policy.
For now, the ruling Generals must answer this, “Dialogue or Die?” The choice is theirs.

The writer Myat Soe is Research Director of Justice for Human Rights in Burma (

Contact to author: Ph: 1-260-493-0655

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