Too early to end Burmese embargo

Issue 

By Richard Horsey

Whatever the reason for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, we can be sure that it was not the sudden realisation by the Burmese junta that it had been wrong all these years in denying its people democracy.

When it comes to oppression and human rights abuses, it is hard to beat the State Law and Order Restoration Council — the regime ruling Burma, known by the sinister-sounding acronym SLORC.

It came to power in 1988, after killing thousands of peaceful and unarmed protesters, including monks and school children. Since then it has set about crushing any dissent and raping the country of its rich natural resources, with the help of multinationals.

At the end of last year the Burmese military launched a major offensive against the Karen people, breaking its own cease-fire. It overran the two most important Karen strongholds early this year using chemical weapons in the process.

Soldiers followed fleeing Karen refugees into neighbouring Thailand and terrorised them — kidnapping their leaders and forcing many of the refugees to return at gunpoint.

Just as Suu Kyi's release was announced to the world, the SLORC broke another cease-fire with a Karen group, launching attacks which forced several thousand refugees to flee.

These are not the actions of a government which wants to embrace democracy.

The SLORC has a long history of feigning reform when faced with strong international condemnation. Under pressure in 1990 it held elections, but ignored the result and arrested members of Aung San Suu Kyi's party, which won 81% of the seats.

Expecting a damning resolution by the UN General Assembly at its last session, the SLORC conducted two highly publicised meetings with Suu Kyi — the start, it claimed, of a process of dialogue aimed at solving the country's problems. After the UN meeting, it broke off the dialogue and launched an offensive against the Karen.

Suu Kyi's release comes at a time when the SLORC is facing many serious problems in the international arena — one day before the US Senate was to debate trade sanctions against Burma, and 11 days before an Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Brunei. ASEAN is an important regional organisation which the SLORC is eager to join.

It seems the SLORC's strategy is already paying dividends. Within hours of Suu Kyi's release, Japan announced the resumption of loans and other assistance to Burma. Indeed, the first news of the release came from the Japanese embassy.

The corporate race to invest with the now more legitimate SLORC is on. One Singaporean official even announced gloatingly that, since his country had been doing business with the illegitimate regime for years, "We will be one of the early birds to pick the juicy worms".

There was another, equally distasteful race — to gain political advantage from Suu Kyi's release. Gareth Evans claimed that it was a triumph for his "benchmarks" policy, ASEAN nations claimed that their "constructive engagement" strategy was responsible, and the European Union that its "critical dialogue" policy had been instrumental. All that was needed to perfect the irony was for China to claim that its policy of massive arms sales to the SLORC deserved the credit for Suu Kyi's release. But the Chinese were strangely silent.

In view of its past record, the SLORC is likely to take measures to again curb Aung San Suu Kyi's liberty. It is vital to keep up international pressure until genuine democracy and lasting peace are achieved. Trade embargoes and a boycott of "Visit Burma Year 1996" are vital.

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