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Burma Remains in Limbo

International community fails to increase pressure against junta

By Mya Maung. Mya Maung is a professor of finance at Boston College. / June 2, 1993



SINCE a military junta seized power in Burma in 1988, two opposing policies toward the illegitimate government have been followed by the outside world: "constructive engagement" and "disengagement."

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Constructive engagement is followed by the most important of Burma's neighboring countries: China, Thailand, and the ASEAN group. The disengagement policy was proposed by a group of Nobel Peace Laureates at the 49th United Nations Commission on Human Rights in February 1993. So far, the disengagement policy has not been wholly adopted or endorsed by the UN, the United States, the European Community, and many other free-world countries, despite adoption of resolutions charging the ruling junta with violat ing the fundamental human rights of the Burmese people. The junta is not honoring the result of the 1990 multiparty election that was won by a landslide by the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest since 1989.

On Jan. 1, 1993, after three years of propagandizing the democratization of Burma, the junta arbitrarily selected some 720 delegates to attend the National Convention under duress with no freedom of expression permitted against the military regime.

At the same time, "the leading role for the Burmese army," or the generals in Burmese politics, was forced upon delegates in drafting the constitution. The convention has been going on and off for more than three months, and on April 9 it was postponed until June 7, 1993, after more than three months of discussing and drafting the 15 chapter headings of the so-called "Constitution of the People."

At the same time, the generals have succeeded in forcing the delegates to incorporate the chapter on Tatmadaw, the Army, as one of the chapters in the constitution.

As a recent political ploy to boost its image abroad, the junta has twice allowed informal fact-finding visits to Burma made by present and former members of the US House of Representatives. In February 1993, the visitors were Reps. William Archer (R) of Texas and Nancy Johnson (R) of Connecticut. The military officials took them on a five-day tour of different regions. On March 25, Mr. Archer and Ms. Johnson testified before the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, concerning US policy toward Burma an d Southeast Asia. Based upon this brief experience, each of them spoke of the "impressive" pace of political and economic change in Burma during the preceding 18 months.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) of California challenged that assessment, and a UN official who visited Burma twice this year described the situation as reported to the UN Commission on Human Rights as "depressive."

AT the same hearing, Miriam Marshall Segal, a US businesswoman who owns the Myanmar-American Fishery Company, a joint venture formed in 1990 with the Myanmar Fishery Enterprise, recommended the US give Burma most favored nation (MFN) status.

On March 28, two former US congressmen, Robert Leggett and Seymour Halpern, were permitted by the junta to meet with five prominent dissidents who have been in prison in Rangoon's Insein Jail, since 1989.

They reportedly met with U Tin U, the first president of the National League for Democracy (NLD), who has been jailed since 1989; U Kyi Maung, successor to U Tin U, jailed since 1990, and U Win Tin, an executive member of the NLD; Zar Ganar, a famous dissident comedian, and Nay Min, a dissident lawyer, in Insein Jail, Rangoon. The congressmen told the press that the five detainees seemed to be in good health.

Recently, they privately lobbied for the junta by showing video tapes at the UN in New York.

Last year, from April 8 to 24, Michael Aris, the English husband of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was granted permission to visit his wife, who has been under house arrest since 1989, for the third time.

Unlike his previous visits, the April visit was not widely publicized internationally. In December 1992, Mr. Aris indicated a possible hunger strike by his wife and her deteriorating physical condition, which he stated at a press conference back in December 1992.

Meanwhile, the nomenclatural system of political patronage and promotion of commanders that began in 1988 continues with full force.

On the auspicious Armed Forces Day of March 27, 1993, eleven major generals of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) were suddenly promoted to lieutenant generals as their names appeared on the list of guests at the dinner party hosted by the chairman of the SLORC, General Than Shwe. Among them were Major General Khin Nynt (the powerful military intelligence chief and Secretary No. 1 of the SLORC), Major General Tin U (the Chief of Staff of the Army and Secretary No. 2 of the SLORC), Major General Myo Nyunt (Rangoon commander), Major General Maung Aye (Eastern Command), and Major General Tun Kyi (ex-Central Command). Thus, as of today the total number of lieutenant generals in the 21-member SLORC is 16, more than triple the original number of five.

It would be wonderful if the US would spearhead a drive to end international acquiescence to the repressive military rule over Burma against the will of the Burmese people.

Yet a May 19 policy statement by President Clinton, after meeting with eight Nobel Peace Laureates, offered no immediate hope of significant change in US policy toward the Burmese junta.

International acquiescence in Burmese political repression seems to indicate that nations across the world are willing to set aside human-rights concerns to trade with a dictatorial regime.