Foreign Business Aids Burma's Jailers

Official US visit with Nobel laureate doesn't signal shift in junta

THE visitation right granted by the Burmese military junta to Rep. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico and New York Times reporter Phillip Shenon to meet with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, kept under house arrest without due process since July 1989, was seen by Mr. Richardson and others as the beginning of ``a positive process of democratization'' in Burma (also called Myanmar). Richardson urged that ``we [the United States] should make efforts to push [Burma]'' for dialogue between the powerful chief of intelligence Maj. Gen. Khin Nyunt and the captive.

It soon became apparent that his views are wishful. General Khin Nyunt told Mr. Shenon: ``We don't see any reason why we should talk to her about the country's political future or economic status.'' He said Ms. Suu Kyi's views are a destructive force in the military, that she is a front for the Communist Party, and is a neophyte unfit to lead Burma due to her marriage to a foreigner.

Thus, democracy in Burma is back to Square 1 - with little prospect of Burma's generals abandoning the political throne.

Richardson's views and recommendations are similar to those of the junta's helpers: an American businesswoman, Miriam Marshall Segal, who owns and operates a joint venture fishing firm with the Burmese government; also a group of US politicians who have been lobbying for the junta. They endorse the constructive engagement policy adopted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, pointing to the junta's ostensible moves toward democratization: releasing some political prisoners, holding a national convention to draw up a ``Catch 22'' constitution that guarantees the leading role of the military, negotiating with ethnic minority rebel groups, and launching opium eradication programs.

Yet behind this veneer of reform, the ruling junta does what it wants. Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel peace laureate, is in her fifth year of detention.

At the same time Richardson visited Suu Kyi, the junta extended her term of arrest another year. Using the 1975 anti-sedition ``law to protect the state from destructionists,'' which empowers the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to arrest and sentence any person at will, the junta has passed out jail sentences to thousands of prisoners of conscience.

In 1993 more than 40 persons were arrested and given long sentences by the junta for protests against the undemocratic process of the national convention in approving the military-dictated constitution.

Not only has the military junta refused to honor the 1990 multiparty elections (which resulted in a landslide victory for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy), but it has also since decimated opposition groups by forced labor; hundreds of thousands have been relocated. Some 200,000 Muslim refugees are stranded on the Burma-Bangladesh border; more than 70,000 Karen, Mon, and Burmese refugees, including 3,000 dissident students, are inside Thailand. And about 10,000 Kachin and Shan ethnic minority refugees are along the Sino-Burmese border.

Despite United Nations rebukes and resolutions against atrocious human rights violations since the 1988 political uprising, the Burmese generals have averted economic and political sanctions. They have adopted an ``open-door economy of Myanmar'' without relinquishing the monopoly and tight controls of key industries with the largest foreign exchange earning power: rice, teak, oil, gems, minerals, and fishery. Indeed, firms from around the world, including French Total, British Premier Oil, and US PepsiCola, Texaco, Amoco, and Unocal, have been investing in Burma - supplying foreign exchange that is used to purchase arms from China.

Suu Kyi correctly states that the US and UN policy toward Burma is ``not clear cut'' and that ``too many nations use economic carrots, and not sticks to encourage improvements in Myanmar's human rights records.''

On Dec. 8, 1993, a 15-member joint official and commercial US delegation headed by three Republican senators, Thad Chochran of Mississippi, Larry Pressler of South Dakota and Hank Brown of Colorado, visited Rangoon and met Khin Nyunt and other military Cabinet ministers. Shortly thereafter, a delegation of five US members of Congress arrived in Rangoon for a three-day visit hosted by Foreign Minister Ohn Gyaw. They also met military Cabinet ministers.

The purpose of their visit and discussions with the ministers was reportedly to promote bilateral trade and US investments.

It would seem that despite official condemnation of ongoing human rights violations by the military regime of Burma, the UN, the US, and other nations are unlikely to alter their policy of not isolating Burma. Diplomatic relationships with more than 60 nations and heavy private investing in Burma mean the Burmese generals have no need or reason to abandon their abuses and free Suu Kyi to work for democracy.

The war between Suu Kyi and the military rulers will continue. Burma's symbol of ``freedom from fear'' will continue to put terror into the hearts of those who seek to rule by force. But when will the UN and US heed the advice of the 1991 Nobel peace laureate to resort to sticks rather than offer carrots to promote democracy in Burma? The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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