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GUARDIAN WEEKLY (12/5/96): FOCUS ON (r)
Subject: GUARDIAN WEEKLY (12/5/96): FOCUS ON BURMA BY JOHN PILGER (2/2)
GUARDIAN WEEKLY, MAY 12, 1996.
FOCUS ON BURMA
BRUTAL FACTS LAY BARE A LAND OF FEAR by JOHN PILGER
The children carried heavy loads of mud mixed with straw in baskets and
dishes on their heads and clearly suffered under the weight of it. They
poured it into a vat and grinder, turned by two tethered oxen. The sticky
clay, now almost as hard as rock, was gathered by two small children, one
of them small enough to fit up to his shoulders in a hole directly beneath
the grinder. As many as 300 adults and children have been killed or have
died from disease and exhaustion, according to one estimate. there were at
least 20 other bridges in the vicinity and children were working on all of
Every village along the way must give its labour "voluntarily" regardless
of age or people's health. Advanced preganance is no excuse. If people
protest that, as peasant farmers, their labour is all they have to keep
them and their families alive, they are fined and their possessions
confiscated. If a whole village objects, the head man is beaten or killed
and all the houses razed.
"I saw one old man accidentally drop his load into the river," a former
civil servant told me in a nearby safe area controlled by the Karen
National Union. "As he tried to retrieve it, the soldiers shot him in the
head. I could see the water turn red with his blood, then the river carried
A man who escaped with his wife told me:" I saw people dying because of
landslides or fever. Some of the bodies were never found, only the head or
a foot. They didn't bother to bury the bodies properly, with a funeral.
They just dig a hole and left them there."
I asked his wife, Min, if she know why she was being forced to work in this
way. "We were told nothing," she said. "We overheard we were building a
rialway so that a French oil company could run a pipeline through, and
foreigners came to look over the site.
The oil company is Total, which is part-owned by the French government. In
partnership with the American Unocal company, Total is 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 the
Slorc have received 65 per cent of their financial backing from foreign oil
companies, including Britain's Premier Oil.
In its 1993 report on human rights abuses throughout the world, the US State
Department says the Slorc "routinely"uses slave labour and "will use the
new railway to transport soldiers and construction supplies into the
pipeline area". Unocal says reports of slave labour are a "fabrication" and
both the oil companies deny the railway is linked to the pipeline project.
In 1993 the British trade minister, Richard Needham, told Parliament, "The
Government policy is to provide no specific encouragement to British firms
to trade or invest in Burma in view of the current political and economic
situation there." In the same breath he said, "British business visitors to
Rangoon can of course look our embassy there for advice and support." Last
year most veils had dropped. The Department of Trade funded a seminar in
London called An Introduction to Burma -- The Latest Tiger Club ?. The
organiser was Peter Godwin, a merchant banker and government adviser on
trade in Southeast Asia. "To be a Briton in Burma," he told the delegates,
"is a privilege". Godwin said he had been assured by the senior general in
the Slorc "openly and categorically" that Burma's "socialism" had been "a
mistake" and that this mistake had caused the upheavals in 1988. He made no
reference to the generals murdering thousands of unarmed civilians, then
throwing most of the elected government into prison. The "good news", he
said, "is that economic growth is picking up".
A few Western businessmen operating in Burma claim that foreign invesement
in the country has multiplied tenfold since 1992. "Its not so much a
gradual pick-up", said Pat James, a Texan entrepreneur, "as a skyrocket."
This is disputed by, among others, a recent report The Economist. The World
Bank and the International Monetary Fund have yet to lend the generals a
penny. However, what has begun in Burma is a fimiliar process in which a
dictatorship's crimes against its people are obscured and "forgotten" as
foreign businessmen seek to justify what the East Asian governments call
"positive engagement" and the Eurppeans and Australians call "critical
dialogue". The prize is a cheap labour colony that promises to under cut
even China and Vietnam.
In spite of a certain sound and fury aimed at the regime by Madeline
Albritht, the US representative at the UN, US policy is "not to encourage
or discourage" business with Burma. The EU countries have followed a
similar two faced policy. While most Western aid remains suspended, the
Japnese government give $48.7 million a year and great zaibatsu --
Mitsui, Mitsubishi, HOnda and Nippon Steel -- has offices in Rangoon.
Burma's most prifitable export is illegal. More than half the heroin
reaching the streets of Ameracan and Australian cities origniates in the
"golden triangle" where the borders of Burma, Laos and Thailand meet. Under
the Slorc, heroin production has doubled. Two researchers, Dr chris Beyer
and Faith Doherty, conclude from a long investigation fro the South-East
Asian Information Network that the Slorc have allowed heroin to circulate
freely and cheaply in Burma in the hope that it "pacifies" the rebellious
Ms Suu Kyi was two years old when her father was murdered. What
distinguished the movement he founded was its complex attempt to apply a
blend of Buddhism, socialism and democracy to the freely elected
governments that followed. But this flowering coincided with a period of
turmoil as the ethnic peoples demanded authnomy. In March 1962 the army
stepped in and seized power. Its leader, Ne Win, became Burma's Stalin. He
displaced whole populations, built labour camps and filled the prisons with
his enemies, real and imagined. His wars against the ethnic peoples were
unrelenting and vengeful. He abolished Burma's lively free press; and along
the way he made himself extremely rich.
In 1987 the man who called himself "Brilliant as the Sun" produced his coup
de grace. Without warning, he withdrew most of the country's banknotes,
replacing them with new denominations that included or added up to the
number nine. According to his chief astrologer, nine was his lucky number.
The people of Burma did not share his luck. As most of them kept their
savings in cash, most were ruined.
In a nation now impoverished the touchpaper was lit. By march 1988 the
regime was at war with the students at Rangoon university. The moment of
uprising came precisely at eight minutes past eight on the morning of the
eighth month of 1988. This was the auspicious time the dockworkers, the
"first wave", chose to strike. Other workers followed in succession; and in
subsequent days and weeks almost everyone in the cities and towns, it
seemed, showed a courage equal to those who stormed the Berlin Wall the
following year. Without guns, ordinary people began to reclaim their
Then the slaughter bagan. The army fired point blank at the crowds and
bayoneted those who fell. In Thailand and Norway, I have interviewed the
exiled witnesses to these epic events, most of them speaking publicly for
the first time. "One of my friends was shot in the head right there, in
front of me," said Ko Htun Oo, a former student. "Two girls and a monk were
shot next to him." Another student, Aye Chan, said, "A lot of flame was
coming out of the crematorium which was surrounded by troops. They weren't
even identifying bodies, so the parents would never know. the dead and
wounded were all mixed up. They just burned them alive."
Now well into his eighties, Ne Win remains the centre of the Slorc's power.
His former aide, the secret police chief, General Khin Nyunt, is "Secretary
One". Behind sunglasses Gen Khin NYunt's pudgy face appears at least five
times a day in the New Light of Myanmar.
The taxi dropped us far from the long green fence of number 54 UNIversity
Avenue. The house is a stately pile fallen on hard times, overlooking a
garden that tumbles down to Inya Lake and to a trip-wire, a reminder that
this was one woman's prison.
Ms Suu Kyi is a striking, glamorous figure who looks much younger than her
50 years and appears at first to carry her suffering lightly. Only in
repost does her face offer a glimpse of the cost and the grit that has seen
her through, though when she laughs this vanishes, like a blind closed and
I asked her if her release from house arrest was a cynical exercise by the
regime to give itself a human face. "I think they also miscalculated," she
replied, "that the National League for Democracy was a spent force and that
releasing me was not goint to make any difference .."
"But with such a brute force confronting you, how do you reclaim the power
you won at the ballot box ?"
"We are not the first people to face this dilemma. In Buddhism we are
taught the four basic ingredients for success: first, you must have the
will to want it; then you must have the right kind of attitude; then you
must have the perseverance, then wisdom ..."
I said that British Foreign Office minister, Jeremy Hanley, had told
Parliament that "through commercial contacts with democratic nations such
as Britain, the Burmese people will gain experence of democratic
She laughed. "Not in the least bit, because the so-called market economy is
only open to some. Investors will help only a small elite to get richer and
richer. This works against the very idea of democracy because the gap
between rich and poor is growing all the time. The same applies to tourism.
They should stay away until we are a democracy. Look at the forced labour
that is going on all over the country. A lot of it is aimed at the tourist
trade. It's very painful. Roads and bridges are build at the expense of the
people. If you cannot privide one labourer you are fined. If you cannot
afford the fine, the children are forced to labour."
During the first years of her house arrest soldiers were ordered to lie
with their ears to the ground so as to detect her "tunnelling" to the house
next door. They failed to grasp that she had no intention of escaping, or
seeking exile. In the outside world, her name became a byword; and people
would pass her house just to be reassured by the sound of her playing her
"Will Burma be free in the forseeable future ?"
"Yes!" she replied unhesitatingly.
"That's not just a dream ?"
"No, I calculate if from the will of the people and the current of world
opinion .. I knew I'd be free .. some day."
Desmond Tutu -- like Ms Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner -- 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 ther is the promise of sanctions in a remarkable
disinvestment campaign already well under way in the US. Based on the
boycottt of aparthied South Africa, selective purchasing laws have been
enacted by a growing number of US cities, including San Francisco. These
make illegal municipal contracts with companies that trade with or invest
A Massachusetts Representative, Byron Rushing, who has written a selective
purchasing law for his own state, 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, its not going to happen overnight, but we have started. The
civilised world should follow."
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