Opinion: We mustn’t forget Burma

With the world’s attention focussed (rightly) on Gaza, the ongoing tragedy of Burma/Myanmar remains almost unseen. Just as the Israelis are keeping foreign journalists out of Gaza, so the Burmese junta stops reporters getting in there to see what is happening. Moreover, now that last year’s cyclone has been forgotten by the outside world and the monks’ protests have been quashed, Burma just isn’t ‘news’ as far as the global media is concerned, with a few noble exceptions such as the BBC World Service.

Nonetheless, the bloody repression there continues, including the torture of political prisoners. On 30 December, nine members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) were arrested in Rangoon (Yangon) for demonstrating in favour of the release from house arrest of their leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi (who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991) has spent more than 12 of the past 18 years in detention, her ‘crime’ being that her party won Burma’s last democratic election in 1990 – a result which the junta simply refused to accept.

As a sop mainly to its fellow members of ASEAN, the Burmese government has announced that fresh elections will be held next year, but democratic activists are convinced these will be nothing but a sham. The military chiefs, meanwhile, being aware of how much they are hated by the Burmese people, have built an almost surreal new capital for themselves at Naypyidaw, 300 miles away in the jungle. There the 75-year-old General Than Shwe and his cronies live in luxurious seclusion, while overseeing the army that keeps the ordinary people subjuugated.

Forced labour – a modern form of slavery – is still common practice in Burma. That’s how the regime gets infrastructure such as roads built on the cheap. In a sickening echo of the wartime Japanese supervision of the building of the Burma railway, they don’t care how many of the workers die in the process. Or that the Burmese people as a whole – especially the ethnic minorities, such as the Karen – are often desperately short of food and medical care.

Yet Burma is a rich country. It has abundant natural resources, not to mention some of the most spectacular tourist attractions in South East Asia, such as the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, and the Buddhist pilgrimage city of Mandalay. The country’s energy resources are vast. Although Western countries are largely boycotting energy deals with Burma because of its appalling human rights record, others, such as China, India and Thailand, are not so fussy.

Indeed, on 24 December, the junta signed a new deal with South Korea’s Daewoo and Korea Gas Corporation, as well as India’s ONGC Videsh and GAIL, to pipe gas from fields in north-west Burma to China. The South Korean government in Seoul rebuffed complaints from Korean and Burmese human rights and environmental campaigners that the Korean companies concerned had breached corporate responsibility guidelines laid down by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Many thousands of Burmese have fled the poverty and repression, the majority seeking sanctuary in Thailand. But Thailand has been so overwhelmed by the influx that it routinely returns Burmese illegal immigrants. Others fester in refugee camps near the border. Delegates from sixteen member parties belonging to Liberal International recently visited one of the these camps, Mae La, about 40 miles from the town of Mae Sot, where they met exiled leaders from Burmese political parties, who confirmed the ongoing crackdowns in Burma on student leaders, democracy activists and monks who took part in the so-called ‘Saffron Revolution’.

We have a moral duty to publicise this state of affairs and to increase the pressure for change.

Jonathan Fryer, Chairman of Liberal International British Group and No. 2 on the London list for the European Parliamentary elections, recently returned from South East Asia.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.


  • A regular reader 5th Jan '09 - 3:18pm

    These sorts of articles are always interesting – that’s why many of us log onto here. Thanks, Jonathan! Articles (‘opposition watch’) on who did and didn’t do/say something are tedious in the extreme. Please take note, Mr Pack.

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