Burma (November 1998)
by Yvette Mahon, Burma Action Group UK, with input from Stephen Lanjouw November 1998

Ten years after the bloody military coup of 1988, the State Peace and Development Council, formerly the State Law and Order Restoration Council, continues to block democratic reform as Burma slips into crisis.

Once one of Asia’s healthiest economies, Burma has now been reduced to Least Developed Country Status. With only 47 million people and no external enemies, Burma has one of the largest armies in Asia. Half the state budget is spent on the military, whose numbers have increased from 180,000 in 1988 to 400,000 today. The economy is characterised by soaring inflation, rice shortages, rampant corruption, plummeting foreign exchange reserves and a crippling external debt burden. The World Bank has recently cut financial ties because the regime has defaulted on loan repayments. Public services are collapsing. The Asian economic crisis has further shaken Burma’s fragile economy, with many foreign investment projects cancelled or put on hold and some foreign companies withdrawing from the country altogether.

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Human rights abuses such as arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, death in custody and forced relocation are rampant. The findings of an Inquiry in August 1998 by the International Labour Organisation accuse Burma’s ruling military of ‘crime against humanity’ for its ‘widespread and systematic’ use of forced labour.

Moreover, Burma has a democratically elected government that has never been permitted to govern. The National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi won 82% of the seats in the 1990 elections. Thereupon the junta changed the rules and declared the election was not for a parliament but for a constituent assembly to draft a new national constitution. The military controlled National Convention (NC) produced a draft that has so far enshrined military dominance of any future government and marginalised Burma’s ethnic minorities. In 1995 the NLD withdrew from the NC in protest.

In May 1998, to mark the anniversary of the 1990 elections, the NLD issued an ultimatum that Parliament be convened by August. In response, the regime restricted Members of Parliaments (MP) to their home towns and arrested those that failed to comply. On 16 September, with over 200 NLD MPs and 971 party members detained, the NLD and elected representatives of four ethnic nationality parties formed the ‘Committee Representing the People’s Parliament’ (CRPP). Burma’s military junta has threatened to dissolve the NLD and to arrest its leaders.

The junta’s relations with the country’s diverse ethnic nationalities are no more harmonious. The seven major ethnic regions, Arakan, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Karenni, Karen and Mon, together make up as much as 75% of the country’s land mass and are home to about one third of the population. Rebellions have flared and simmered in Burma’s borderlands for nearly five decades. The principal demands of Burma’s ethnic nationalities are genuine autonomy for their home areas and a significant voice in the affairs of the country. Since 1988 the regime has negotiated uneasy cease-fires (with no political settlement) with most armed groups and waged fierce assaults on others. There are now hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people. The forced relocation of many ethnic minority villages for purposes of ‘internal security’ has also fueled the exodus of tens of thousands of refugees to Thailand, Bangladesh, India and China.

Aid however remains a contentious issue. It is extremely difficult for NGOs to work without the permission and without the interference of the authorities. Despite Burma’s growing humanitarian crisis, Aung San Suu Kyi has clearly expressed the opinion that NGOs should concentrate at this stage on assisting the Burmese refugees along the country’s borders.

Since 1988 the international community’s approach to Burma has been schizophrenic: western countries have made limited attempts to isolate the regime – politically rather than economically – while Asian governments have made significant attempts to engage the regime – economically rather than politically. As a result, the regime has felt relatively little pressure.

At present, the United States is the only country which has imposed economic sanctions with a ban on all new US investment. There are also 21 cities, states and counties in the US with selective legislation making it difficult for American companies working in Burma to gain contracts with local government institutions.

The European Union (EU) has imposed a visa ban for members of the regime, an arms embargo, a ban on non-humanitarian aid and has withdrawn trade preferences from Burma due to the regime’s use of forced labour. There are however no European economic sanctions on Burma. In fact the EU is currently taking action at the World Trade Organisation to dismantle sanctions put in place by the US state of Massachusetts.

The NLD has repeatedly called on the international community to impose economic sanctions on Burma. The economy is the Achilles heel of the regime. A dual approach combining economic isolation with an invigorated diplomatic initiative by the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), China, Japan, and the United Nations can ‘encourage’ the regime into a more conciliatory approach. The initiative should have a single goal – a transitional programme from dictatorship to democracy.

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