Burmese Ethics

by Bob Burnett

HuffingtonPost, 10/28/05


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 burgeoning infrastructure.

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 egregious offender.

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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