(Fall 1996 issue of COVERT ACTION QUARTERLY
...In February [1996 ], the UN Commission on Human Rights reported, as it does every year, that the following violations were commonplace in Burma: "Torture, summary and arbitrary executions, forced labor, abuse of women, politically motivated arrests and detention, forced displacement, important restrictions on the freedoms of expression and association and oppression of ethnic and religious minorities. ..." Take at random any of the reports by Amnesty International and what distinguishes the Burmese junta from other modern tyrannies is slave labor. "Conditions in the labor camps," reports one study, "are so harsh that hundreds of prisoners have died as a result. ... Military Intelligence personnel regularly interrogate prisoners to the point of unconsciousness. Even the possession of almost any reading material is punishable. Elderly, sick, and even handicapped people are placed in leg-irons and forced to work.
In Britain, tourism to Burma, a former British colony and repository of much imperial nostalgia, has become a lucrative business. Pick up a travel brochure these days from any of the famous names in British tourism British Airways, Orient Express, Kuoni and there is no problem. Indeed, to British Airways, Burma offers "the ultimate in luxury" and a "fabulous prize" for its Executive Club members. "To find an unspoilt country today may seem impossible,"extols the Orient Express brochure, "but Burma is such a place. It has retained its charm, its fascinating traditions ... its easy-going ways are a tonic to the Western traveler." Moreover, this "truly unique experience" includes a "free lecture on Burma's history and culture." I inquired about this lecture. It makes no mention of the momentous events of 1988.
..."We overheard we were building a railway so that a French oil company could run a pipeline through, and foreigners came to look over the site." The oil company is a partnership between a US company, Unocal, and Total, which is part-owned by the French government. They are building a $1 billion pipeline that will carry Burma's natural gas into Thailand. The deal will give the Rangoon generals about $400 million a year over 30 years. Since they put an end to democracy in 1990, it is estimated that SLORC has received 65 percent of its financial backing from foreign oil companies, including Britain's Premier Oil and America's Texaco and ARCO.
In its 1993 report on human rights abuses throughout the world, the US State Department says SLORC "routinely" uses slave labor and "will use the new railway to transport soldiers and construction supplies into the pipeline area." Unocal says reports of slave labor are a "fabrication" and both the oil companies deny the railway is linked to the pipeline project. But more than 5,000 troops have already been shipped to the pipeline area and army patrols protect Total personnel.
...Western entrepreneurs in Burma claim that foreign investment has multiplied tenfold since 1992. "It's not so much a gradual pick up," said Pat James, a Texas businessman "as a skyrocket." This claim is disputed by, among others, a recent report in The Economist. The World Bank and IMF have yet to lend the generals a penny. However, what has begun in Burma is a familiar process in which a dictatorship's crimes against its people are obscured and "forgotten" as foreign businesspeople seek to justify what the East Asian governments and the US call "positive engagement" and the Europeans and Australians call "critical dialogue." The prize is a cheap labor colony that promises to undercut even China and Vietnam.
Most Western governments, together with Japan, are running a "two track policy" on Burma: offering public support for Aung San Suu Kyi while pursuing, often in secret, long-term business links with SLORC. Tax havens, such as the British Virgin Islands, are used to move money to Burma; this is the route used by Unocal, the US oil company.
In spite of criticism by the Clinton administration and Secretary of State Warren Christopher's recent description of a "new tide of repression in Burma," US policy is business as usual: "not to encourage or discourage trade." After visiting Rangoon in June and "conferring" with SLORC, President Clinton's special envoy, William Brown, praised the role of ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, which has since offered SLORC full membership. Calling ASEAN "that noble organization," Brown reaffirmed US policy as "constructive engagement" with Burma. (This was the term used by the Reagan administration for US support of the apartheid regime in South Africa).
Brown also said that "the issue of forced labor has diminished" in the week that the International Labor Organization reported that SLORC was forcing its people into forced labor "on a massive scale and under the cruellest of conditions." In a letter to the Far Eastern Economic Review, a State Department official, John Shattuck, sought to play down Brown's remarks. "While there are undoubtedly fluctuations in the use of forced and compulsory labor within Burma," he wrote, "the fact remains that such serious violations of internationally recognized worker rights are widespread and remain a matter of grave concern to the United States."
The "two-track" policy is exemplified by the role of Britain. While Nelson Mandela was in London last July, feted by a British establishment that once did everything in its power to undercut him, his fellow Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi "Asia's Mandela" was being quietly abandoned, with the British now undercutting her. On June 12, a day Suu Kyi appealed to the world not to do business with SLORC, a senior official of Britain's Department of Trade and Industry arrived in Rangoon to "evaluate the commercial prospects" of British support for the regime.
Mike Cohen, head of export sales to Asia, met an official of the SLORC's investment agency in the week the junta decreed a 20-year prison sentence for anyone attending meetings outside Suu Kyi's home. On the day Cohen flew into Rangoon, Jeremy Hanley, the British Foreign Office minister, told Parliament that the British Government supported "democratic reform and human rights" in Burma. "We have made it clear to SLORC," he said, "that the resumption of normal relations is conditional on progress in those key areas. He added that the Department of Trade had "pulled the plug" on future British trade missions to Rangoon.
What the minister neglected to say was that, even as he rose to address Parliament, Cohen was flying into Rangoon to "evaluate" the next trade mission. In fact, the British government has funded two recent trade missions to Burma and an international seminar in London called, "An introduction to Burma the latest Tiger Cub," at which speakers described "the real visionaries" in SLORC.
For all the European Union's pretensions on human rights, European companies, backed by their governments, are among SLORC's biggest underwriters. The Total oil company, building the oil and gas pipeline for the regime, is part-owned by the French Government. Germany is SLORC's longtime supplier of weapons-grade machinetools. On July 15, a meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels formally blocked a call by the European Parliament for sanctions against Burma. At the same time, the EU Council of Ministers "welcomed" Burma's membership of ASEAN's Regional Forum.
So it is with Japan, another of SLORC's major underwriters. Although Japanese foreign minister Ikeda Yukihiko is said to have privately criticized SLORC, Tokyo continues to hand the junta $48.7 million in "aid." The great zaibatsu, Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Honda, and Nippon Steel are in Rangoon. NHK, the Japanese national broadcaster, has issued a remarkable directive that the video footage it owns showing the Burmese army shooting down demonstrators "is prohibited for use by anybody in the world, even by NHK in Japan, because it's too delicate and might threaten Myanmar's (Burma's) stability. ... Please erase the material in your library."
And so it is with Australia. On July 22, Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer was reported in the Australian press to have taken "a tough line" on human rights abuses in Burma. He immediately contradicted this by declaring that Australia "would not stand in the way of Burmese membership of the ASEAN Regional Forum." In the last year, the number of Australian business delegations visiting Rangoon has doubled. The largest fence in Burma, advertising the Australian beer, Foster's, shields an army watchtower from the gaze of tourists.
By far Burma's biggest backer is China,which has armed SLORC on a barter system that has seen many of Burma's natural riches, such as its gemstones and teak, go to China. Chinese business interests are now so well ensconced that Mandalay is often referred to as "a Chinese city." Leading the "tiger" investors is Singapore, whose state arms company came to SLORC's rescue in 1988 at the height of the pro-democracy demonstrations when troops were running out of ammunition.
The collaboration of Thailand has been critical to SLORC's survival. The Thai Petroleum Authority will be the sole importer and consumer of the gas that comes through the French/US-built pipeline. The deal is little different from the logging, mining, and fishing concessions which Thai interests have negotiated with Rangoon since "development" in their own country has all but destroyed its principal natural resources.
Part of the unstated deal is that the Thai military sends back Burmese refugees who manage to cross the border. In April 1993, Thai troops burned down two refugee camps in an operation, reported the Bangkok Nation, "probably related to the gas pipeline." Thousands of ethnic Mon refugees have since been forced back into Burma, many straight into the hands of the SLORC military. On the border, where the pipeline will enter Thailand, SLORC troops display pens distributed by the French oil company, Total, in their uniform pockets. "Total is coming," said one of them with a broad smile.
Burma's most profitable export is illegal. More than half the heroin reaching the streets of US and Australian cities originates in the "golden triangle" where the borders of Burma, Laos, and Thailand meet. Under SLORC, heroin production has doubled. In a study, Out of Control, two researchers, Dr. Chris Beyrer and Faith Doherty, conclude from a long investigation for the South-East Asian Information Network that SLORC has allowed heroin to circulate freely and cheaply in Burma in the hope that it "pacifies" the rebellious young. According to his son, the infamous drug lord Kuhn
Sa is living comfortably on Inya Lake in the center of Rangoon with the support of military intelligence.
While drugs bring in quick cash, it is tourism on which SLORC pins its hopes for foreign exchange and, above all, international respectability. "At last the doors to Myanmar, the magic golden land, are open," waxes Dr. Naw Angelene, the director of tourism, in an official handout. "Roads will be wider, lights will be brighter, tours will be cleaner, grass will be greener, and with more job opportunities, people will be happier." One of the biggest foreign tour operators in Burma is the Orient Express Group, which operates "The Road To Mandalay," a "champagne-style cruise" between Mandalay and Pagan in a converted Rhine cruiser. The cabins, says the brochure, "are
not simply luxurious"; there is a Kipling Bar and a swimming pool.
When I found it at anchor in the heat and mosquitoes, The Road To Mandalay looked squat and sturdy rather than luxurious. Once on board, however, it seemed the perfect vehicle for pampering tourists in one of the world's 10 poorest countries. Like an air-conditioned bubble, it is constantly cleansed of the smells and noise and dust of the land through which it glides. In the "staterooms" the television rises at the foot of the bed and, presto, there is Rupert Murdoch's satellite TV. In February, the captain of The Road To Mandalay welcomed his inaugural guests. "They might have been, the cast from an Edwardian novel" wrote London Times travel writer Peter Hughes,"a prince
and two princesses from the Endsleigh League of European Royalty, our own Princess Michael of Kent among them; a duke; a marche and marchese; a film star, Helena Bonham-Carter; and assorted lords and ladies whose names tended to be the same as their addresses. Those without titles merely had money." The actual road to Mandalay has recently been converted into an expressway for tourists. For the local people forced to work on it, it is known as "the road of no return." According to Amnesty International, two workers who tried to escape were executed on the spot by soldiers.
Another eight were beaten until they were severely injured; one was hacked to death with a hoe.
When I interviewed James Sherwood, the American chair of Sea Containers, which runs the Road to Mandalay tours, he described the Burmese generals as "rather bright, well educated, dedicated men who are trying to improve the country." He said he had contacted the CIA about the "allegations" of human rights violations and it was "confirmed to me these allegations were untrue."
...Desmond Tutu said recently, "International pressure can change the situation in Burma. Tough sanctions, not constructive engagement, finally brought about a new South Africa. This is the only language that tyrants understand." What is hopeful is that there is the promise of sanctions in a remarkable disinvestment campaign already well underway in America. Based on the boycott of apartheid South Africa, selective purchasing laws have been enacted by a growing number of US cities, including San Francisco and Madison, Wisconsin. Massachusetts has passed its own selective purchasing law, which has brought pressure on corporations based in the state, such as Gillette although Gillette says it is no longer in Burma. These make municipal contracts with companies that trade with or invest in Burma illegal. New York state is considering similar legislation; and one of the biggest investors in Burma, Pepsi Cola, with its headquarters in upstate New York, has partially withdrawn.
Rep. Byron Rushing, who wrote Massachusetts' selective purchasing law, told me: "In the case of South Africa, we were able to put pressure on a whole range of companies, like General Motors, Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola, and most eventually withdrew. And that really added to the pressure on the white government. That was a victory. As for Burma, it's not going to happen overnight, but we have started. The civilized world should follow."
Transnational Corporations & the Third World