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Peter Untinov on Burma
Received: (from strider) by igc4.igc.apc.org (8.6.12/Revision: 1.16 ) id OAA16394; Mon, 26 Feb 1996 14:22:27 -0800
Date: Mon, 26 Feb 1996 14:22:27 -0800
The European -- Sir Peter Ustinov's Column "Ustinov at Large"
February 21, 1996 NB! Copied without Permission of Sir Peter or the
BURMESE JOAN OF ARC IN A WORLD OF BLIND SELF-INTEREST
'Isolationalism is a bad policy. And there are always devious, corrupt
ways around sanctions'
Thank heaven for moral vigilantes. The world would be a lot more
wayward without the watchdog activities of the numerous non-governmental
organisations of with Greenpeace and Amnesty International are examples.
They and other groups are permanently on the alert for any breaches of
the norm in the practice of human decency.
As soon as a rumour is rife that a person is about to visit
Myanmar, or Burma as it is better known, he or she is inundated with
faxes from organisations warning that they may be held morally
accountable for their rashness in going at all. Some warnings merely
fill them in on the latest outrages perpetrated by the junta there.
Burma has been singled out for such treatment because of the
existence of a single catalyst to crystallise the conflict, a modern
Joan of Arc, the Nobel prizewinner Aung San Suu Kyi. This woman of
exemplary tenacity and great physical beauty has all the qualities
necessary to confuse a bunch of military men trained to deal with
illiterate slave labour, but out of their depth when victims are able to
answer back. She won a democratic election with a landslide majority,
and was sentenced to six years of house arrest, a punishment both
vindictive and furtive.
Now the junta is becoming conscious of the rosy possibility of
foreign investment in a country that is one of the poorest in the world.
It is beginning to bend over backwards to attract these benefits. They
start, of course, with tourism. This id "come to Burma year". Travel
restrictions are abolished or simplified. The rate of six kyat per
dollar is stabilised, but the unofficial rate of about 120 tolerated.
And the house arrest is now technically over.
The image of the neighbours' success dazzles the junta. Thailand
and Malaysia are both booming. Burma has joined the gold rush, and hopes
to achieve aims without having to change its oversimplified and
undemocratic way of life unduly. Such hopes are clumsily expressed by a
high-ranking military official who declares that the junta is too busy
preparing for Burma's economic take-off to hold talks with the
Lt Gen Kyaw Ba, minister for hotels and tourism, added: "This is
not the time for dialogue, but the time to work. We must first see to it
that the people get rich" a pious hope in a country notorious for being
reduced to employing child labour, and even child recruitment into the
armed forces. The general, as quoted in the Bangkok Post, added
gratuitously, hoping to add a note of finality to his statement, that
Aung San Suu Kyi would play no part in the economic development because
she "has no experience in the country" and "lacks historical background
of the independence struggle".
It may well be that there exist plenty of foreign businessmen
lacking the sensitivity to allow the anomalous situation in Burma to
affect their desire for expansion at any cost. But it would be a rash
general who banked too heavily on human venality.
The agencies of the United Nations are present in the
countryside and in the city. Some feel they should not be involved, and
ought to leave a decrepid society to its own devices. Others are less
rigid in their thinking, once they are convinced that aid from the
international agencies goes directly to the recipient in the field. It
is never given in the form of cash to the awkwardly named State Law and
Order Restoration Council, or SLORC, the name invented by the junta to
Isolation is a bad policy. And there are always ways around
sanctions, ways witch are invariably devious and corrupt. Sanctions
against Iraq have caused much human misery, especially to children, the
elderly and the very poor. They have certainly cemented Saddam Hussein
in place, wish was never the intention. The same is true of the rump
Yugoslavia and Slobodan Milosevic.
If Burma were to be hermetically isolated from the rest of the
world, it would only accelerate the potentially catastrophic trade in
ever-younger girls for prostitution, smuggled across many borders, and
instrumental in the relentless advance of the spread of HIV and Aids in
Only the people would suffer from the West's high-mindedness.
And while we are on the subject, how high can the mind fly these days
without a condemnation of most of mankind for abuses of some kind or
other? Such a holier-than-thou attitude would render all travel and
human contact impossible. All power to those selfless people who devote
themselves to bringing the world fractionally closer to an image of
perfection; and a plague on those who do the opposite out of the greed
So how can we treat the quick sands of time as a solid basis for
our posturing? Should we no longer travel to France because of her
arrogant nuclear tests? Should we protest as we pass without difficulty
through British immigration about the fate of an Indian widow of 79,
whose husband was beheaded by the Japanese during the war as an alleged
British spy in Hongkong? She was the recipient of an eloquent letter of
posthumous gratitude from the British government at the time. Now she is
denied the minimal compensation of a British passport.
Every nation has a mean-minded side where what are known as
national interests are concerned. Such interests are in the nature of
things, selfish and self-serving. This being said, I feel ready for
Burma. Even for Myanmar. Bjorn L. Benkow Newscan Inc * Kirkeveien 90A *
N-0364 OSLO * Norway Tel +47 2246 1000 * Fax +47 2246 7803 * GSM-Mobile:
+47 900 48 500