Sanctions needed against Burmese military

August 6, 1998

By Maung Maung Than

August 8 is the 10th anniversary of the brutal massacre of thousands of peaceful demonstrators in Rangoon. Opponents of the military dictatorship will be protesting outside the Burmese embassy in Canberra on August 7 and 8.

Recently, more than 100 activists were rounded up by the regime to prevent them from attending a meeting organised by Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy.

A further six activists were sentenced to death for alleged involvement in a terrorist plot against the ASEAN countries. San San, MP, was sentenced to 25 years for having an interview with the BBC, while student leader Aung Tun was sentenced to 15 years in jail for writing a book on the history of the student movement; five other activists were sentenced to long terms for helping him.

Despite the fact that there are a large number of ethnic groups maintaining their own culture and identity, their fundamental rights, most importantly their right to self-determination, have been denied.

A number of armed ethnic groups have been forced to enter cease-fire agreements with the regime. The ethnic people's daily existence is a struggle for survival, with many living in concentration camps or forced to be human mine sweepers and porters for the Burmese military.

Elsewhere in the country, forced labour on infrastructure projects continues. Millions of people, including women and up to 1 million children, are enslaved to work at gunpoint on major projects designed to promote tourism and railways, roads and dams.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been rounded up and sent to border areas to serve the military in secondary capacities such as transport and distribution of ammunition and food.

Approximately 85% of heroin in Australia comes from Burma, largely produced by the State Peace and Development Council (what the regime now calls itself, having changed its name from State Law and Order Restoration Council). The SPDC has taken over drug production from the Shan warlords such as Khun Sa.

Because Burma supplies approximately half the world's heroin, all investment projects in Burma have become de facto drug money laundering operations — even the state-controlled banks accept deposits of narco-dollars, no questions asked, at a 40% cut.

The SPDC also produces ecstasy and amphetamines for export.

In 1996, the US embassy in Rangoon reported: "Exports of opiates alone appear to be worth as much as all legal exports".

Burma has also become a haven for fugitive traffickers, who appear to be able to continue their operations from Rangoon with the cooperation of the SPDC.

The revenues from these illegal exports finance genocide. Some 40-60% of the SPDC budget is spent on defence, although Burma is at war with no-one.

In the aftermath of the 1988 uprising and massacre, the regime opened up the country to foreign business. In fact, it is open to those with military connections. Most of the investment is in mining, oil and gas exploration, hotel construction and tourism.

Widespread corruption and economic mismanagement have had a devastating effect on the economy. Foreign reserves are almost non-existent.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been calling for international support for democracy in Burma through the imposition of trade and investment sanctions

The regime's control over the entire economy means that ordinary people do not benefit from international trade and investment, and that only the military regime and its cohorts will be hurt by sanctions.

The US government has endorsed a ban on further investment from US companies. The action, put into law in 1997, caused a tremendous effect on investors who wanted to expand projects exploiting Burma's natural resources.

But Australian companies are now throwing their money into Burma instead, creating a major loophole in international efforts to isolate the regime.

Last year, Brisbane-based Pacrim Energy signed an $8 million contract to explore for oil in upper Burma, and the Melbourne-based McConnell Dowell construction company is building a pipeline in the Thai Burma border area to export natural gas from Burma to Thailand. Many more companies are on their way to Burma.

They justify their actions by arguing that the Australian government's policy of "constructive engagement" with the regime does not preclude business deals with it.

ASEAN's acceptance of Burma as a full member in July 1997 has made matters worse, giving the junta both financial support and political recognition. This policy does nothing to move the country towards democracy, but simply reinforces the military's hold on power.

The economic crisis that hit Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia increases the pressure for forced repatriation of refugees to Burma.

Grassroots activists have successfully lobbied in several US states, such as Massachusetts, and here in the Marrickville Council, for adoption of selective purchasing laws, which bar companies involved in Burma from doing business with the state.

Because of strong British and French opposition, the European Union does not yet have sanctions against the regime, but it has restrictions on members and the families of the regime from entering the EU countries.

[Maung Maung Than, previously a student at the Institute of Economics in Burma, and now studying at Macquarie University, was active in the uprising against the regime in 1988. Following the massacre, he fled to the Thai-Burma border where, for over a year, he fought alongside the Student Army and Karen soldiers. In 1989 he moved to Bangkok to participate in non-violent activism, for which he was jailed on numerous occasions until moving to Australia as a refugee in 1994.]

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