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Different strokes (FEER 23.2.89)

/* Posted 8 Jan 10:00pm 1997 by drunoo@xxxxxxxxxxxx in igc:reg.burma */
/* ----------------" Different strokes (23/2/89) "------------------ */

Different strokes
Divergent reactions to Rangoon's instability
by Bertil Lintner in Bangkok

AS a direct outcome of the recent upheavals in Burma, when anti-government
demonstrators demanded democracy and an end to the socialist system,
Burma's immediate neighbours have become involved in its internal affairs
for the first time in decades. In the process, the three most important
countries -- India, China and Thailand -- have adopted completely different

India was one of the first countries to comment on the Burmese crisis. On
10 September 1988, New DElhi expressed its support for "the undaunted
resolve of the Burmese people to achieve their democracy."

Later, when thousands of Burmese dissidents fled a bloody crackdown that
resulted from the military takeover on 18 September, India became the only
neighbour that adopted a clear-cut refugee policy. On 25 October, India's
External Affairs Minister, P.V. Narashima Rao, told a parlimentary panel
that "strict insturctions have been issued not to turn back any genuine
refugees seeking shelter in India."

One refugee camp was built at Leikhul in the Chandel district of Manipur
state in northeastern India. Two more camps mainly for students from the
ethnic Chin minority, have been built at Chanphai and Saiha in neighbouring
Mizoram. Since then, news about the comparatively fair treatment received
by refugees has filtered back to Burma, and an increasing number of
students have fled to Indial The number now is said to be about 800, and it
is still increasing.

India's sympathetic attitude has been reflected also in the frankness of
All-India Radio's (AIR) Burmese service. Previously, it attracted only a
few listners, mainly from Burma's large Indian community. Today, AIR has
overtaken the BBC;s Burmese service in popularity among the public at

"The BBC is government-sponsored, but still independent. AIR is run by the
INdian Ministry of INformation and Broadcasting and reflects official
policy. That's even more important," said one observer.

The Burmese Government-controlled Working People's Daily has over the past
few weeks published several vitrolic attacks on AIR, accusing of
interference "in Burma's internal affairs." The 27 January issue of the
same newspaper also accused the Indian police beating student refugees.
This seems groundless, but clearly emphasises official Burmese concern over
the increasing number of students heading northwest for exile. Analysts
suggest that India's stand has prompted not only by the way it usual views
itsld as a "guardian of democracy" in the regon, but also by consideration
related to security and nationality.

India shares an 857 -mile frontier wit Burma and ethnic insurgents, mainly
Nagas,  unadministered Burmese territory as  for cross-border raids into
Indias northeast.

So far, Burma's only reaction to this situation has been to mount
esseitially futile, half-hearted military operations against the insurgents
from Inida. In any case, the Burmese military has been stretched to the
limit fighting several ethnic insurgencies within Burma. It is widely
believed that India hopes that a new democratic government in Rangoon might
try a more tactful political approach. A stable border could also result in
increased trade between the two countries, analysts say.

Another consideration might be New Delhi's concern for the INdian community
in Burma, which under a 1982 citizenship act  they become stateless, or has
been given a second-class citizenship by the Rangoon regime. Traditionally,
the Burmese have looked down on the kalas -- a derogatory word used to
describe the Indo-Burmese. India might be assuming that its strong stand
for democracy could help make life easire for this community in the future,
according to some observer.

AT one stage, China seemed to have a similar concern for the equally
stateless and vulnerable Chinese community in Burma. Shortly after the
military takeover, the Trade Minister Col ABel called in Zhan Dee, the
commercial counsellor of the chinese Embassy in Rangoon to discuss some
trade arrangements that had been made prior to the August-September

The new regime, anxious to publish any evidence of foreign contacts, put a
picture of the meeting on the front page of the Working People's Daily on 4
October. This brought a strong reaction from Rangoon's chinese community,
which approached the embassy to make its views known.

"If the chinese Government is seen as cosying up with the detested military
regime, the Sino-Burmese community may be vitimised by angry crowds if
there is another popular uprising," One Rangoon based diplomat explained.

However, as the sitaution has calmed down -- and border trade with china
has picked up -- that attitude may have changed, among the Sino-Burmese as
well as the Chinese authorities.

Recently, Burma's Myanma Export Import Corp.(MEIC) signed its first
official border-trade agreement with its counterpart in China's Yunnan
province. Burma agreed to sell 1,500 tonnes of maize, valued at US$180,000,
in exchange for chinese milk powder, soap and toothpaste.

In overall terms, this may not be especially significant. The total value
of private, but officially sanctioned and taxed trade, as well as smuggling
through rebel-held areas along the border, may be as high as Kyats 30
million (US$4.6 million at the official rate) a day, according to some

As many as 300 trucks leave Mandalay and Lashio in northern Burma for the
Chinese border everyday, these sources say, though most of the goods may
come into Burma through areas controlled by communist and ethnic Kachin
rebels. Either way, Chinese consumer goods are flooding the markets in most
northern Burmese towns, and increasingly even in Rangoon.

But in order to encourage trade through the only two government-held
crossing points -- Muse and Panghsai -- the authorities decided recently to
allow cooperatives and private merchants to use 25% and 40% respectively of
their export earnings to import Chinese merchandise in kyats at the
black-market rate -- which is about six times as high as the official rate
of Kyats 6.5:US$1. The condition, though, is that goods purshased in this
way have to be resold to the MEIC for distribution inside the country.

Peking's policy on Burma -- once directed towards all-out military and
political support for the rebels along the border -- today appears to be
almost exclusively guided by economic considerations. Local sources assert
that the chinese are also still maintaining close ties with these rebel
groups, mainly because they offer more liberal terms for the traders than
the government.

AS for the Burma's third major neighbour, Thailand, its reaction and policy
are probably the most confusing and difficult to ascertain.

On 22 NOvember, the Thai Government granted temporary asylum to the
thousands of Burmese students who fled to the Thai-Burmese border after the
military stepped in. But then, on 14 December, the Thai army chief, Gen
Chaovalit Yongchaiyut, visited Rangoon and returned with lucrative logging
and fishing deals -- and began repatriating Burmese students (REVIEW, 9

The inconsistent Thai policy appears to have backfired and created
considerable anti-Thai sentiment. Christopher Schacht, an Australian
senator who recently visited Burma, quoted opposition politicians as saying
that more than 100 Burmese fishing vessels are now lying idle in ports
along the Irrawaddy delta, because fishing rights have been sold to Thai

Reuters newsagency reported form Rangoon on 7 February that "the army has
sold off concessions...so quickly and so cheaply that opposition
politicians are warning about lasting environmental damage." Former prime
minister U Nu said: "OUr forests will disappear. there will be no fish in
our waters." In the case of an elected government, it is plausible to
assume that these contracts will be terminated.

The repatriation of Burmese students, which appears linked to the logging
and fishing deals, has also upset many Burmese. In four townships in
Rangoon -- Lanmadaw, Hledan, Sanchaung and Kemmendine -- posters have
appeared urging the public to boycott Thai goods. Ethnic Karen rebels have
threatened to disrupt cross-border trade in teak logs, on which they now
levy taxes.

In the long run, it is difficult to judge which neighbouring country will
be able to maintain the closest relations with resource rich Burma -- which
seems to be the ultimate purpose of the differing approaches of India,
china and Thailand.

The only thing that appears certain is that Burma's self-imposed isolation,
from which Rangoon benefited for years, is over and that it will be
difficult to restore in the face of new challenges, both internal and