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Lest we forget in Myanmar

Asia Times - February 3, 2012

Nancy Hudson-Rodd The Myanmar delegation to the United Nations in Geneva complained last year that some members failed to show due diplomatic respect by referring to their country as Burma rather than Myanmar. Now most diplomats and news publications refer to the country as Myanmar as a reward the regime's recent so-called reforms. But is this respect justified and are long-time Myanmar observers now suffering from selective amnesia?

Last year, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, recently released from years of house arrest, remotely addressed the annual World Economic Forum in Davos "on behalf of the 55 million people of Burma who have largely been left behind". Suu Kyi, who has long supported Western sanctions imposed against her country's military regime, appealed to international participants to promote Burma's genuine democratization, human development and economic growth.

Her National League for Democracy (NLD) party a week later detailed the kinds of policies needed to promote positive change and rebutted claims that Western sanctions were only detrimental to Burma's people, not leadership. The party argued that "criticism of sanctions served to divert attention from the main problems plaguing the country" which it listed as blatant cronyism, corruption, and the military regime's refusal to release their iron-clad grip on power.

It also argued that the legislative assemblies formed out of the 2010 elections, which the NLD did not contest and hence was subsequently banned, are totally dominated at both the national and regional levels by the combined body of the military's Union Solidarity Development Party and the non-elected military representatives who account for 25% of all legislative seats. Moves to designate these assemblies as the country's only political forum reduced democratization in Burma to a "parody", the NLD said.

A year later, optimistic reports of positive change flow freely from the country. President Thein Sein has portrayed himself as a leader who sincerely wants to improve citizens' livelihoods, alleviate poverty and include the NLD in the political process. He has formed a new Human Rights Commission, opened previously closed doors to international diplomats and their corporate sponsors, and relaxed laws to promote more international investment and development.

The timing has been impeccable. International corporations, many nervous over Europe's debt crisis and America's sustained sluggishness, are eager to find fresh new places for their funds and Burma is suddenly emerging as a possible destination. As the chairman of the Singapore-based Rogers Holdings told Bloomberg Television last November, "If you can find ways to invest in Myanmar you will be very, very rich over the next 20, 30, 40 years."

China and Thailand currently account for more than 70% of total investment in Burma, but as the executive vice president of the Stock Exchange of Thailand recently said, "Every Western company complaining about sanctions is looking around. The more the merrier... There are vast opportunities in Myanmar."

Following those words, a high-level American business delegation that will include Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is due to visit the country in February in the latest sign of strengthening US ties with the long-isolated, military-run country. European businesses are known to be interested in various sectors, including natural resources and infrastructure, the President of the Thai-German Chamber of Commerce recently said while opening the new European-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Business Center in Bangkok.

There are commercial reasons to be optimistic. Myanmar is developing a US$8.6 billion port and industrial complex at the coastal town of Dawei which is designed to cover an area 16 times bigger than Thailand's largest manufacturing park. Thanet Sorat, head of the Federation of Thai Industries, said recently "What makes Dawei interesting is Myanmar itself. It was closed for so long and now the government is more open. Thai companies see many opportunities there due to cheap labor costs and many natural resources."

However, the government's and military's continued rights abuses in the same region are less widely publicized. The Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HRFM) recently reported widespread violations against citizens in Dawei's Tenasserim Division. In fishing villages along its coastal areas, the Navy's administrative unit extorts monthly household fees, commandeers fishermen's boats and drivers to transport staff and troops, demands rations from the local population, and forces people to act as security guards, according to HRFM.

Last year, the same navy unit allegedly confiscated over 1,000 acres [405 hectares] of rubber and perennial fruit plantations from local farmers. None of the agrarians were compensated for their lost lands. Over 3,000 more acres of rubber plantations have been surveyed for confiscation, according to reports. Many local authorities now make money by granting permission to displaced former land owners to work as cheap labor on their confiscated plantations for a monthly fee.

The recently released 38-page Burmese language book, Forced Expropriations of Farmland and Partial Victories, published by the Farmers Rights Defenders Network, also tells the story of villagers' struggle against army-backed companies taking their land for industrial development.

To date the new National Human Rights Commission, run by the Home Ministry, has not investigated any of these claims. "There is no real change and development yet in spite of the government's claim. This is because the abuses that locals in the region face are committed by local military men, who do not seem to care and respect the government's order and power," remarked a local former school teacher quoted in the HRFM report.

Cosmetic change

So are the positive changes supposedly taking place in Burma more cosmetic than substantive? And does Thein Sein's nominally civilian, military-backed government deserve the international recognition and rewards it has recently and may in future receive, including the lifting of economic and financial sanctions?

One condition for removing Western sanctions has been the release of political prisoners. Those who have been released by recent presidential pardons committed no crimes yet at any time may be sent back into prison to complete their sentences if they do anything deemed as improper by authorities. Significantly, the amnesties have not been based on any law but rather the whim of the leader.

Over 1,000 political prisoners still remain imprisoned, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma (AAPPB). The real number is unknown. No independent review of prisons, prison labor camps, and agricultural production camps have been allowed since 2005 when the International Commission of the Red Cross was denied access.

Despite all the talk of reforms, none of the arbitrary laws and regulations that have been used to crush dissent have been changed. And there remain many unanswered but highly pertinent questions that Western governments looking to engage Thein Sein's supposedly reformist regime should be asking.

For instance, where are products of agricultural prison labor camps being sold? What compensation schemes are in place for government-confiscated lands, crops, and resources? Where is the discussion of land ownership and rights, particularly at a time foreign investors look to establish presences in the country?

To be sure, Suu Kyi's announcement that the NLD will re-enter politics confers a degree of legitimacy on President Thein Sein and his nominally elected parliamentary government. Her endorsement of what so far has been a limited democratization process has attracted eager corporate interest but little improvement in civil liberties and human rights the reasons economic sanctions were imposed in the first place.

All laws passed since 1988, when the military slaughtered over 3,000 pro-democracy demonstrators, have been passed through executive decrees rather than legislative processes. There is no independent judiciary. There is no rule of law. The 2008 Constitution, rammed through in a sham referendum, is designed to ensure continued domination of the military regime. Anyone who speaks out against the regime still risks being thrown into prison. The press is still pre-censored. Change has been marginal, at best.

Despite the pretensions to democracy, Thein Sein's government still depends on one of the largest armed forces in Southeast Asia for its survival. With no serious prospect of a foreign invasion, this standing force remains solely to control the population. A culture of impunity has long existed in Burma, where government officials and military personnel have gone wholly unpunished for a litany of widely documented abuses.

The 2008 constitution perpetuates that culture of impunity by giving blanket amnesty for serious crimes committed by former junta members, including former leader Senior General Than Shwe. It also denies victims the right to remedy for past violations as the military still hold disproportionate influence over Thein Sein's government. Authorities continue to restrict access to mechanisms of citizen complaint while harassing and taking legal action against those who have dared to challenge the military's authority over civilian affairs.

NLD stalwart Win Tin, who was held as a prisoner of conscience for 19 years, has said he sees "no difference, no change" with the new government. He has argued that the newly established Human Rights Commission is similar to the previous ineffectual ones set up by past military regimes. "There is no change. If you go to the countryside you find poor people who are facing violations of their human rights," Win Tin said.

Win Tin's is the voice of moral authority few Western governments and corporations want to hear these days. But the long, hard fought struggle for freedom and justice in Burma continues and truth speakers should be supported rather than ignored. While the West blindly supports Thein Sein's shallow democratic transition, it increasingly runs the rising risk of being on the wrong side of Burma's history.

[Nancy Hudson-Rodd is a human geographer and honorary senior research fellow at the Edith Cowan University in Australia.]

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