by Bob Burnett
When we list countries with extremely
repressive governments, Burma (Myanmar) is at the top. Its' atrocities
are notorious: ethnic cleansing, sexual violence against women,
murder and torture of dissidents, use of child soldiers, and so
on. The macabre joke in this corner of South East Asia is that
if Burma had significant oil resources, America would have invaded
it years ago.
Nonetheless, the Rangoon government has drifted out of the public
spotlight. The reasons for this say a lot about the current state
of globalization, particularly its' code of ethics.
Burma is roughly 50 percent larger than
Iraq, both in terms of population and geographical area. While
it doesn't have the mammoth petroleum reserves coveted by the
Bush Administration, Burma does have a wealth of natural resources
including natural gas (there's a new pipeline to Thailand), minerals
(copper, antimony, and zinc), lumber (teak), precious stones (jade,
rubies, and sapphires), and the ever-popular opiates (said to
be the commodity of exchange for the weapons used by the Burmese
army). These assets are so attractive that Burma's neighbors turn
a blind eye to the Rangoon government's conduct and have normalized
trade relations; Burma was recently accepted into ASEAN (the Association
of South East Asian Nations) and the Thai prime minister, and
other important political players, have huge investments in Burma's
Trouble started once the British left
in 1948. Supposedly, the Brits worked out a power-sharing agreement
between the majority Burmans (68 percent of the population) and
seven distinct ethnicities; each minority group would have their
own state, for example, the Shan people (9 percent) would rule
an area adjacent to the border with Laos and Thailand. In 1962
a Burman military junta, the State Peace and Development Council
(SPDC) seized power, and a civil war began. There have since been
several unsuccessful attempts at a settlement. In 1990 there was
an open election and the National League of Democracy (NLD) won.
The SPDC refused to hand over control to the NLD and placed its'
leader, Nobel laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi, under house arrest.
In October of 2004, SPDC conservatives deposed Prime Minister
General Khin Nyunt, who had proposed a transition to democracy.
In the past several years, the SPDC confiscated
land held by the ethnic groups and hundreds of thousands of Burmese
peasants were thrown off their ancestral farms. Men who resisted
were summarily executed. Often the women were raped and the boys
forced into the military or labor camps. As a result, there are
now two million Burmese refugees. Most of them fled to Thailand:
1.5 million are undocumented workers supporting Thailand's vibrant
economy; another 140,000 live in ten camps strung along the border.
We met with several refugee support groups and heard harrowing
tales of Burmese military atrocities. However, because Thai authorities
are committed to normalization of relations with the Rangoon government,
the refugee camps are tolerated, but not funded - food and medical
assistances comes from the UN and NGO's - and Thailand refuses
to grant refugee status to Shans fleeing genocide.
Burma's closest neighbors - China, India,
Thailand, Bangladesh, and Laos - view the authoritarian government
of Rangoon through the narrow lens of commerce. As long as Burma
continues to export its resources, they ignore the grievous human-rights
abuses perpetrated by the SPDC. This has produced a stalemate
at the U.N. When the United States and France tried to get members
of the Security Council to consider the atrocities in Burma, the
effort was blocked by China. Thus, the Security Council discusses
human-rights problems in Africa or the Middle East, but is unable
to deal with the abuses within Burma, arguably the world's most
This impasse shines a spotlight on the
sordid underbelly of globalization, human-rights violations. If
there ever was a moral high ground in world trade, it disappeared
in the stampede to open new markets. Each of the global powers
- America, China, Great Britain, India, and Russia - has its'
own human-rights issues. The U.S. because of our mistreatment
of immigrants, use of Guantanamo Bay as an unregulated detention
facility for suspected terrorists, and the misconduct of our troops
in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the absence of a unifying moral perspective,
the global community has promoted the false ethic that "the
market" will resolve human-rights abuses. As a result, the
nations of the world can have a meaningful dialogue about trade
or the possible spread of avian flu, but not about issues such
as genocide, sex trafficking, and denial of democratic process.
In the 1930's, after Adolph Hitler and
National Socialism came to power in Germany, there were many who
ignored the grievous human-rights abuses of the Nazis; who argued
that Hitler had protected Germany from Communism and turned it
into a reliable trading partner. Now, Burma is the Third Reich
of South East Asia. The fact that its' authoritarian government
can get away with atrocities because it represents a business
opportunity, indicates that the world community has learned nothing
from the lessons of the past 70 years.
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