Burma under the boot

Wednesday, August 7, 1991

By Burma Support Group

Burma is rich in natural resources — forests, fish, oil, minerals, gem stones and jade. In 1962, Burma was the world's largest rice exporter and the richest country in South-East Asia. By 1987, Burma had been reduced to one of the 10 poorest countries in the world.

In Burma one of the last remaining teak stands is rapidly disappearing. In need of foreign exchange to buy arms, the military has sold off forests, principally to Thai and Chinese loggers. In a recent arms purchase worth $1.5 billion, cash and teak and other natural resources were bartered with China.

The construction of roads to provide access to foreign loggers has the added purpose of aiding offensives against ethnic minority groups who are struggling against military and economic oppression. Loss of forest cover also means, in the case of military attack, that villagers have nowhere to take refuge, but are forced to flee to the Thai side of the border.

Deforestation in Burma is the third highest in the world, after Brazil and Malaysia. Environmental protection has no priority for the Rangoon regime — there is no official body monitoring, researching or policing wildlife loss or environmental destruction.

In Thailand, almost all forests had been destroyed by excessive logging, and in 1988 the government imposed a nationwide logging ban. But the Thai timber companies look elsewhere for supplies — to Burma.

Contracts sold to foreign fishing companies have stopped traditional fishing communities fishing in waters they have had access to for generations. Thai trawlers, equipped with high-tech radars, chemical and explosive devices and widely used small-holed drag nets, are devastating Burma's marine life permanently. Foreign fishing companies disregard their contracts and fish more extensively than declared.

General Ne Win took power from a democratic government in 1962 in a military coup. The failure of Ne Win's economic program, the "Burmese Way to Socialism", his own brand of nationalist, Buddhist and "socialist" principles, crippled the national economy.

Corrupt nationalisations drastically reduced production to the point where consumer demand was not met, and an extensive black market developed. In a bid to cope with rampant inflation, Ne Win demonetised the currency in 1967, 1985 and 1987. Personal savings were wiped out.

Peaceful mass anti-government demonstrations across the country began on August 8, 1988. These demonstrations, on some days numbering a million or more, forced the military government almost to the point of collapse.

The generals responded with guns and tanks. Eight thousand people were killed in the crackdown. Large numbers of students and pro-democracy activists fled to the Thai-Burma border and joined with ethnic groups which have been fighting the central government for 40 years.

Nevertheless, the popular uprising forced the military junta to hold the first multiparty elections in 30 years. The main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won more than 80% of the seats, but the military refused to hand over power.

Elected members fled to the border (those who didn't have been arrested or placed under house arrest), where they have established the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma in the liberated area. This represents cooperation of all the ethnic groups in Burma.

In 1988 all universities and schools were closed. Three years on some schools and university faculties have been reopened, with all students' parents and tutors being forced to sign a declaration that they personally will be held responsible for any anti-government actions by the students.

An international trade and arms embargo has not been supported by Burma's major trading partners, Thailand and China. Arms reaching Rangoon — the army spends 50% of official GNP on weapons — have also come through Singapore from countries such as Pakistan, Israel, Yugoslavia and Belgium.

Responding to the recent trade sanctions imposed by the US, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has indicated it would prefer a softer approach to the Rangoon regime.

To mark the third anniversary of the pro-democracy uprising, a demonstration is being held outside the Burmese Embassy in Canberra on August 8. Transport is being organised from Sydney, and more information can be obtained from Dr Raymond Tint Way on (02) 858 5739.

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