Burmese Junta Reforms Economy, but Not Rights

Desperate for foreign cash, Burma's leaders try to polish the image of their hard-line regime

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

SENIOR officials in Burma's isolated military regime - which the State Department calls one of the worst violators of human rights in the world - made a rare visit here as part of a charm offensive aimed at polishing up their government's tattered image.

The delegates from the Army and the finance and foreign ministries told an academic conference sponsored by the American Council on Asian and Pacific Affairs Monday and Tuesday that Burma - which the government renamed Myanmar after crushing the 1988 democracy movement - was enjoying rapid growth in agriculture, tourism, and foreign investment. Farming and some industry has been privatized, leading to a 2 million ton grain surplus and 10 percent economic growth in 1992.

But the Burmese delegates admitted in interviews that addressing what a State Department official called the ``abysmal'' human rights situation was not a priority.

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``The situation in our country is such that we need to be settled first'' before human rights issues can be addressed, explained Col. Ye Htut, director of the department of the chief of staff of the Ministry of Defense in Rangoon, which the government now calls Yangon.

The colonel admitted that Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won the 1990 elections. She remains under house arrest, and many of her party leaders are in jail.

``If we had transferred power, it would have been chaos like Yugoslavia,'' the colonel said. ``Former communists lead the NLD, and they try to incite people to demonstrations.''

He said Ms. Suu Kyi was free to leave her house arrest and ``go back to her home any time she wishes. Her permanent address is in Oxford,'' England.

Suu Kyi has refused the offer to leave her native Burma. Her British husband and two sons have been allowed to visit her.

The State Department official agreed that Burma has made some economic progress since 1988 when troops crushed a democracy movement, leaving thousands dead in Rangoon.

Finance Minister Win Tin says that foreign companies pumped nearly $1 billion into Burma in 1992 by investing in oil and gas, textiles, agriculture, fisheries, mining, timber products, and hotels. The main investors come from the US, Thailand, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Austria, and Australia.

The finance minister says sales of Burma's legendary teak forests to Thai and Chinese loggers ended this year. The sales helped the regime endure the international isolation following the 1988 suppression of the democracy movement and the annulling of the 1990 election won by the NLD. And the officials confirmed reports that Burmese girls and women have been recruited, sold, and sometimes kidnapped into prostitution in Thailand and have returned to Burma infected with AIDS.

The State Department official says that the visit of the officials is one of a number of recent ``cosmetic'' moves such as release of political prisoners, the reopening of universities, the calling of a constitutional conference, and opening peace talks with ethnic insurgents.

``But there is no commitment to reform,'' he says. On Oct. 15, the US official says, 12 people were sentenced to 20 years in jail for simply distributing leaflets saying the constitutional convention is too tightly controlled.

Continued heroin and opium production in the Golden Triangle area bordering Thailand and Laos remains of vital concern to the US and other drug-consuming nations. The officials say that the US cooperates with Burma on drug issues, but that Rangoon lacks funds for income substitution to replace opium profits in the countryside.

The Clinton administration is in the midst of a Burma policy review. One option is to maintain its policy of blocking all aid and voting against all international loans. Another option is to take a harder line and perhaps cut off its imports of Burmese garments and other products to the US. Or the US could ease up on its opposition by filling the ambassadorship to Rangoon, which has been left vacant since 1990.

US efforts to isolate Burma's military regime over human rights issues have won little support among neighboring countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia, which favor ``constructive engagement'' to encourage economic development and allow Burma to adopt its own standards of human rights.

The Burmese said in an interview that journalists are now allowed into Burma and tourists can obtain one-month visas and visit previously closed areas in northern Arakan state.

``They know they need tourism for investment,'' says Professor David Steinberg of George Washington University's School of Foreign Service in Washington, ``but they are scared of foreigners.''

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