The Boycott Burma Campaign in the US succeeded last year in pressuring multinational companies such as Macy, Levi Strauss, Reebok, Liz Clairborne and Eddie Bauer to pull out or stop doing business with Burma as a sanction against the military regime, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Others, such as Unocal, Texaco, Arco, Pepsi and Heineken refused to give in. A number of US cities are calling for federal legislation that would make such links illegal. A hunger strike is planned for October to step up the pressure. MUANG MUANG THAN, a student activist in the 1988 democratic uprising and organiser of the All Burma Student Democratic Organisation in Australia, talked to EVA CHENG about the solidarity campaign here. Than's assessment of the Burmese opposition will appear in the next issue.
Question: Can you outline the state of the solidarity movement for Burma in Australia?
The Boycott Burma Campaign in Australia has been successful among the students and the Australian people. There are some Burmese community organisations here as well campaigning. The Democrats, Greens, Labor became aware of the situation. I think a lot of people in Australia are supporting democracy for Burma. There are quite a number of rallies and actions, but with a low turnout.
Students form the backbone of the solidarity movement, the National Union of Students. I also worked with Resistance, ISO, students from Australian National University. Many students are involved in actions. Also some churches — the National Council of Churches — Community Aid Abroad and NGOs are supporting financially.
The ACTU also issued some strong statements. They made some protests in Canberra last week. Many organisations and people are showing strong support, but we need more actions.
Question: Has the Howard government said anything in response to the campaign so far?
They try to follow the line of the previous government in adopting what is called a "benchmark". They put 10 points on things which they want to see — human rights, [release of] political prisoners and students, a return of democracy. But there's no action from SLORC to follow those points. When it happens, there's no guarantee what the Australian government would do.
The benchmark is merely a superficial political statement. We need action to follow it up. They should impose economic sanctions, tourism boycott, against companies doing business with Burma. That would directly hurt the SLORC regime, put strong pressure on them, their whole system.
The economic system in Burma is mainly controlled by the military, as they control the political system. All joint ventures in the private sector are owned by the military elite, their followers and families. Millions of people are suffering from the economic liberalisation — inflation, shortage of basic necessities. The majority are getting poorer.
Question: What is the extent of Australian investment in Burma? I understand that it's not very big. Does it affect your strategy of campaigning here?
It's now about $28 million out of total foreign investment of $3 billion. The companies include BHP, Multiplex, Transfield, Diversified. They are helping SLORC financially and, more importantly, politically.
Many Asian countries invested in Burma and don't care about human rights or whatever, except profits. Australia is very important because of its location in the Asia Pacific region and it is a western democracy. It has given a lot of political credibility to the SLORC regime.
Once Bob Hawke visited Rangoon [early 1995]; then the military leaders made sure every day, every newspaper reported that the Australian leader is supporting them. Money is not necessarily the key thing. The political support counts a lot too.
We demanded last July to have the Austrade office in Rangoon closed down. On May 27, during a week of detention and crackdown in Burma, as a quick reaction, [Deputy Prime Minister] Tim Fischer said that they are considering that. But he is the same guy who said we can't put pressure on Burma.
The National Party, as part of the Coalition, doesn't want to have economic sanctions or anything against SLORC. I think the Liberals will just follow the benchmark policy. Australia should go further than this. The US government is making tougher statements against the military regime.
Question: Solidarity groups in a number of countries have launched campaigns against SLORC. What is the state of these campaigns? SLORC postponed the launch of the Visit Myanmar Year from January to October: do you consider it a victory for the movement?
It is. They had planned everything to start in January. They had to postpone that because people are not coming. The boycott campaign is successful in many countries — America, Europe, Thailand, India, Japan. Indonesian students are also in cooperation with us. Burmese and their supporters campaigned very well.
A lot of people are aware of what's happening in Burma, the human rights violations. In Burma, everywhere you have forced labour, illegal detentions, shootings, civil war. I think the boycott campaign is educating a lot of people. We have coordination among the groups. We will continue to focus on the boycott campaign.