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Miriam Segal Speaks

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Miriam Marshall Segal speaks
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[Begin transcript]
Testimony of Miriam Marshall Segal, Chairperson, Peregrine Capital Myanmar
Ltd., Presented before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the
Pacific.  June 29, 1994.
Mr. Chairman:
I am grateful for your invitation to present my views on Myanmar to this
My name is Miriam Marshall Segal and I am chairperson of Peregrine Capital
Myanmar Ltd.--MMAI.  I would like to take a moment to tell you a little about
myself.  I am a victim of the Holocaust and my father was killed in a
struggle to establish the state of Israel.  I was stateless for 18 years. 
More so than many others, I know the pain of organized repression and the
value of freedom.  I have been visiting Myanmar for over 18 years, first as
a tourist and later as one engaged in a business developing artifacts made by
Myanmar's skilled artisans.  About three years ago, my company formed a joint
venture with a Myanmar Government enterprise in the area of fisheries.  Very
recently, Peregrine Investment Holdings Ltd., one of the most successful
investment banks in Asia, with subsidiaries in several Asian countries
commenced operations in Myanmar with my company.  Peregrine which has an
unparalleled record of success over the last seven years, would scarcely
commence operations in Myanmar unless it shared my confidence in the growth
and stability of Myanmar.
The insistent clamor on what's wrong with Myanmar drowns out the many changes
and achievements of the last three years.  Unfortunately, one outdated
picture, one still shot frozen in time, seems to rivet everyone's attention. 
The truth is far more complex.  Being primarily a business person I would
like to focus on the changes in the economic and business climate in Myanmar. 
It would however be a jejune experience on my part to do so without some
attempt to offer my perspective on the political events of the last few
Perspective is based on both information and misinformation.  The extent to
which rampant misinformation pollutes any reasoned discourse on Myanmar can
be seen from a recent news item which appeared in the Boston Globe on May 5,
1994, in which it was reported that Myanmar's rulers raffled off rights to
fish its waters for the purpose of raising hard currency to finance the cost
of purchasing Chinese weapons.  Since I have been so intimately involved in
the fishing industry in Myanmar for the last four years, I can only describe
this news item as undiluted non-sense.  The truth is that for over three
years, a courageous minister, intent on developing Myanmar's fisheries
resources with due regard to conservation and an orderly development of
Myanmar's resources, threw out Myanmar's waters nearly 650 fishing vessels
from other nations.
The absurdity of the Boston Globe news item may be gathered from the fact
that after nearly 18 months of negotiations with four Chinese fishing fleets,
my company is, on a gradual basis, increasing the deployment of Chinese
fishing vessels in Myanmar from nine to about fifty.  If Myanmar were indeed
so desperate for Chinese weapons, they could have simply invited 600 Chinese
fishing vessels to come in.  One wonders what motivated the writer of this
article.  And if the writer's statement were true at some point in time many
years ago but certainly not at any time in the last four years, what
relevance does this information have today?  And that is what I wish to
emphasize.  Please put away outdated information about Myanmar--there is much
which has changed in the last four years.
The most obviously visible change in Myanmar, at least from a foreigner's
perspective, is the sharply increased number of tourists and business
visitors now pouring in Myanmar.  What was once a completely closed country
is now enthusiastically rolling out the welcome mat even to dissidents. 
Former Prime Minister U Un's daughter and her husband, vocal critics of the
regime, recently visited Myanmar.  Such a posture can scarcely be reconciled
with a view that the Myanmar government is determined to stem the exposure of
Myanmar citizens to diverse political philosophies.  Omar Farouk, a former
journalist from Myanmar who now resided in Australia, recently wrote as
follows: "Irreversible changes are taking place in Burma after the "young
turns" (having taken over).  Karl Marx is out; Gautama Buddha is in..The
Burmese Muslims are again free to use loudspeakers from the minarets. 
Visiting foreign pastors can now address their congregations in churches. 
Pilgrimages to Mecca and the Vatican are no longer a problem.  The revolution
of the mind has begun."
Anyone who visited Myanmar five years ago and returns today would be
surprised by the changes which are visible everywhere, in streets and shops,
in villages and farms, and in the attitudes of government officials.  These
first hand encounters in a country can reveal far more than reams of
statistics.  There is now a concerted diversion of the economy from military
and defense goals to one where civilian needs assume priority.
Three statutes, the Foreign Investment Law enacted in 1988, the state-owned
economic enterprises law enacted in 1989, and the Private  Industrial
Enterprise law enacted in 1990, have resulted in a flood of private
entrepreneurial activity.  Some detailed information about these statutes and
the number of new enterprises established are submitted to this committee as
an annexure to my statement.  In the area of fisheries, privatization is
almost total.  It may take longer in other areas but the eventual goal is
In sharp contrast, both the democratic constitution of 1947 and the socialist
constitution of 1974 called for the nationalization of all capitalist
enterprises.  Each and every sector of the economy has blossomed under the
more liberal atmosphere.  Production of paddy increased to 835.7 million
baskets--an increase of 124.6 million of the prior year.  In 1993-4, crude
oil output was 7.3 million U.S. barrels and natural gas 38.7 million cubic
feet as against a mere 1.9 million U.S. barrels and 10.4 million cubic feet
the year before.  Output in tin, tungsten, gold, refined silver and lead have
also surged.  In foreign trade, the private sector by far outperformed the
public sector and the role of the public sector is steadily shrinking. 
Similar progress can be seen in infrastructure projects--a total of 16,770
miles of new and old roads were extended or repaired in 1993-4 and 95 new
bridges have been built.
A new four year national health plan has been adopted with large budgets and
authority given to local authorities.  An aggregate of 45 specific programs
have been developed to meet the needs of woman and children such as
immunization of all children under the age of one as well as their mothers;
the providing of post natal care; growth monitoring, etc.
Yet another striking and easily verifiable example of the new directions and
initiatives are the vigorously stepped up narcotic control measures.  A new
congressional committee of the United States and our Drug Enforcement Agency
have commended Myanmar's efforts to stem the cultivation of plants which
eventually yield narcotic drugs.  Myanmar acceded to the U.N. Convention
against illicit traffic in Narcotic Drugs, and in compliance with the
requirements of the convention, enacted a new narcotic drugs and psychotropic
substance law in January '93.  United Nations observers.
A newly created work committee for the development of border areas has
commenced a series of programs to offer alternatives to cultivating the opium
poppy, and large budgetary allocations have been made for the purpose. 
Sadly, the Myanmar government's effort in controlling cultivation and
trafficking in narcotics are aggressively countered by local chiefs and
warlords with slogans on behalf of democracy and human rights.  Columbian and
many other countries in Latin American and Asia have received millions to
fight the drug trade.  Myanmar has not received a penny.  Yet, it continues
to sacrifice its human and material resources to put a halt to a scourge
which eventually finds its way into our streets and schoolyard.
My recitation of the positive changes in Myanmar cannot but lead to the
inevitable question--when will democracy return.  Any answer to that question
must be based upon the simple premise that in virtually every country a
written constitution is a prerequisite to a functioning democracy.  The
prevalent view in Myanmar was that the elections were held to organize a
convention which would draft a constitution rather than form an
administration to take over the reins of government.  It must be remembered
that 93 parties contested the election, and members from 27 parties were
elected.  The only sure outcome of the elections was not orderly government
but the most ominous signs of fratricidal strife.  The military could not
wait for a Yugoslavia type situation to develop; it stepped in to forestall
yet another round of senseless violence.  To do so, the leadership had to use
force and inevitably lives were lost.
The dilemma between preserving national unity or advancing the cause of
liberty is not new.  Abraham Lincoln faced the same situation in 1862 when
the editor of the N.Y. Tribune accused him of not enforcing certain anti-
slavery measures.  Lincoln replied, "My paramount objective in this struggle
is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery."  Our
history also tells us that Lincoln, more than anyone, was responsible for
abolishing slavery.  But Lincoln also was unwavering in establishing his
priority--National Unity.  Can we really blame the leadership for doing the
same?  The price we paid for preserving the Union pales in comparison with
anything that has happened in Myanmar--360,000 dead in the Union army and
288,000 on the Confederate side, not to mention the wounded.
We must remember that the new group of leaders in Myanmar are not the
creators of the present situation but rather its inheritors.  As soon as
conditions settled, they called a constitutional convention which included
about 40 of those who won the earlier election.  Additional representation
was added from the border areas, the clergy, the intelligentsia and the
military.  Many other countries have done likewise when they set about to
draft a constitution.
While of course one would like to see a democratic government installed
immediately, I doubt if we should dictate either the time table which the
present government should adhere to or the exact provisions which should be
adopted in the constitution.  Throughout history, national building has been
a difficult process.  Our own history bears testimony to this fact.  It was
only after numerous wars and countless situations where violent abuses of
human rights occurred that a reasonably stable and democratic society finally
emerged in America.  Virtually every other European and Asian nation went
through the same process.  The settlement of borders, the acceptance of a
central authority, the integration of separatist forces--all these are time
consuming tasks.
To its credit, the present regime has, in just the last five years, made
peace with no less than eleven dissident groups: the Myanmar National
Democracy Alliance, the Myanmar National Solidarity Party, the National
Democracy Alliance Army Military and Local Administration Committee, the Shan
State Army, the New Democratic Army, the Kachin Defense Army, the Pa-O
National Organization, the Paluang State Liberation Party, the Kayan National
Guards, the Kachin Independence Organization and the Kayinni National
Liberation Front.  The committee will find more details on these successfully
concluded peace talks in an annexure to this statement.  There can be no
question that national reconciliation and pacification are making impressive
progress.   In a country such as Myanmar with numerous languages, cultures,
religions and regional loyalties, democracy without proper preparation
becomes a prescription for chaos and anarchy rather than liberty and
progress.  Democracy is not an export commodity.  Rather it should take root
and grow as an indigenous plant resplendent in its native hues.
It is my belief that the positive changes in Myanmar described above have
planted the seeds of democracy in Myanmar.  We must allow some time for the
plant to grow.  It is in this context that we must reexamine our policy in
Myanmar especially in view of the fact that we have made practical and
sensible policy decisions where some other countries are concerned.  For
example, neither Saudi Arabia nor Kuwait has had free elections in decades. 
The human rights records of both have been appalling.  Yet when is the last
time any of the champions of democracy have clamored for free elections in
Saudi Arabia or Kuwait  Both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are amongst our largest
trading partners, and American investments have poured into these countries. 
Indonesia was, for nearly two decades, a country with problems and a form of
government very much like Myanmar.  But American trade and investment in
Indonesia did not suffer.  The savage butchery of thousands of dissidents in
so many Latin American countries has been amply documented.  But we have not
ceased to do business with these countries or attempted to impose sanctions
on them.
Sanctions and enforced isolation will do little to speed a country like
Myanmar along the path to democracy.  That is far more likely to happen if we
proudly and forcefully promote American values and efficiently advance the
cause of private enterprise.  We must first understand the tides of history
in that region.  We can made an important contribution to Myanmar's process
of democratization and economic liberalization only if, on the basis of such
understanding, we engage in an active dialogue.  We should take active steps
to increase the low of books and magazines, professors and businessmen,
tourists and observers.  We should do all we can to reinforce every
evolutionary step toward democracy, and constantly press for change.  Most
importantly, we should without any further delay send an ambassador to
Myanmar.  If we are serious about it, how can we convey a message without a
Our antagonism towards Myanmar will not have a material impact.  Trade and
investment delegations from Japan, China, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand,
Australia and Korea as well as several businessmen from European countries
are eagerly seeking business opportunities in Myanmar.  Once again, these
countries will make money while we preach.  Their ambassadors speak publicly
about human rights and privately go about the business of helping to
negotiate contracts.  Nevertheless, these countries will, by their economic
activities, do more to spread democracy than our preaching will ever
accomplish.  And we will be the losers in terms of influence, exports and
jobs.  Instead of our present policy, we should extend to Myanmar the same
patience and understanding we have shown to so many other countries.  The
history of one party rule and human rights records of China and Myanmar are
not very different.  But China is a stronger country and we have more trade
and investment there.  Is it the American way to prescribe one set of values
and policies and another for the weak?  In conclusion, I submit that in the
matrix of history as it stands in 1994, the battle for liberal democracy has
been fought and won.  It would be particularly apt to quote from Francis
Fukuyama's book, "The End of History and the Last Man," in which he states:
(T)here is a fundamental process at work that dictates a common evolutionary
pattern for all human societies--in short, something like a universal history
of mankind in the direction of liberal democracy. The existence of peaks and
troughs in this development is undeniable.  But to cite the failure of
liberal democracy in any given country or even in an entre region of the
world as evidence of democracy's overall weakness, reveals a striking
narrowness of view.  Cycles and discontinuities in themselves are not
incompatible with a history that is directional and universal, just as the
existence of business cycles does not negate the possibility of long term
There is much wisdom in Fukuyama's observation.  If we choose to believe it,
constructive dialogue rather than coercion or sanctions should be our policy
in Myanmar, unless, of course, we are determined to forget the lessons of our
recent history.
[End Transcript]