Thailand invites Burma to ASEAN summit
By Richard Horesey
Burma's repressive military junta has been invited as an observer to the ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) foreign ministers' meeting on July 22-28 in Bangkok. Many observers see this as the first step towards Burma (now officially called Myanmar) becoming a full member of the organisation.
Thailand's initiative to end Burma's isolation is being supported by the Australian government. Australia has scrapped any efforts to isolate Burma and its new ambassador to the country is taking a stance that definitely favours the junta. Diplomats have stated that Canberra is following a policy of "lying doggo" so as not to affect growing trade links with ASEAN.
Australian businessman Michael Kailis defended his multi-million dollar investment in Burma, saying "Australia is missing out. Of course, I think it is shocking what has gone on there in the past, but you wouldn't believe the changes ... ". An Austrade official at Australia's Rangoon embassy went further, saying "who cares about politics?"
The tens of thousands of Burmese people who have been slaughtered in the last few years for demonstrating for democracy, and the 42 million who are prisoners in their own country obviously care about politics. Burma's past is long and complicated. What follows is a brief summary.
Burma has been called "The Golden Land", "Land of Jade" and "Land of Pagodas" — references to the country's rich natural and cultural heritage. It is regarded as the cultural centre of Theravada Buddhism. Kipling and Orwell were captivated and inspired by its calm and tranquillity.
Burma was a British colony until it gained independence in 1948. After a brief period of democracy, the army seized power in a coup in 1962, led by General Ne Win. He set up the Burma Socialist Program Party to rule the country, and instigated the "Burmese Way to Socialism" — a disastrous self-sufficient economic policy that turned a once prosperous nation into one of the poorest in the world.
During the late 1960s and 1970s, there were regular clashes between students and the army in which hundreds of students were killed. In 1987, the junta demonetised 80% of the currency in circulation without paying any compensation; people's life savings were wiped out and this led to widespread unrest.
The situation exploded in March 1988 when a university student was killed by riot police. A wave of student demonstrations followed with workers also joining in.
As the size and frequency of the demonstrations increased, so too did the military's violence against the protesters. Thousands of people were killed by government troops over the following months. These were mostly university students, but also included primary- and middle-school children, Buddhist monks, hospital staff and Red-Cross workers. Even though Ne Win had by then resigned, his influence on the regime was strong.
The military brought in a civilian leader in an attempt to defuse the situation. However, this did not stop the wave of massive demonstrations which eventually led to the formation, by monks and students, of local committees to maintain order.
In September 1988, the army staged a mock coup d'etat and set up the State Law and Order Restoration Council. They then began to brutally regain control, ordering troops to shoot dead anyone in groups of more than three.
Some 10,000 students had to flee to the jungles near the Thai border, where they formed the All Burma Students Democratic Front and took up arms against the government, fighting alongside several ethnic minority insurgent groups who had been attempting to gain more autonomy since independence.
There are currently nearly half a million refugees from Burma in neighbouring countries — Asia's worst refugee crisis. The number of internal refugees is unknown.
In 1990, the government held elections which it had hoped to win by arresting and terrorising the opposition into submission. But they failed to anticipate the depth of feeling against the military.
Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the country's independence hero, became the focus of democratic aspirations and her National League for Democracy party won over 80% of the seats in parliament. The military never handed over power. Aung San Suu Kyi, soon to start her sixth year of house arrest in Rangoon, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
Desperate for legitimacy in order to receive foreign aid for its failing economy, the government has instigated a "national convention" to write a constitution. This has been denounced by some foreign governments and opposition groups as a farce.
China, a major supporter of the regime, has considerable strategic and trade interests in Burma. As a result of this, ASEAN countries (and in particular Thailand) have lost over US$1 billion in trade which they are trying to recover by tempting the regime with membership of ASEAN.
The current political and economic situation in Burma makes this is a critical period for the regime. Last month, it attempted to withdraw US$60 million from the World Bank (deposited in order to become a member) and was refused. It does not have the resources to support a military over 300,000 strong. The fragile cease-fire in its war against the ethnic minorities continues to hold, but it is impossible to say for how long.
The recent flow of business investment into the country is mostly for long-term projects and is unlikely to provide any foreign exchange earnings for several years. In the absence of immediate foreign investment, the regime is likely to collapse. This is why it is important to put pressure on governments, such as Australia's, to isolate the Burmese military dictatorship diplomatically and economically.