High Stakes in Burma
'We are following standard international procedure" in dealing with the demonstrators, a spokesman for Burma's military government (the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC) said recently.
He was referring to large-scale clashes between students and police in Rangoon and Mandalay two weeks ago. The demonstrations were the most serious challenge to the government since 1988, when it seized power by brutally crushing a pro-democracy uprising, also led by students.
In Burma (renamed Myanmar) "standard procedure" continues to mean detaining hundreds of Burmese students when necessary, deporting foreign journalists, and placing democrat and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi again under house arrest. SLORC also detained members of Ms. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NDL), accusing them of being linked to the demonstrations.
This is nothing new. More than 250 NDL members were arrested prior to a party convention last May, and at least 500 members were detained when the party attempted to hold another congress in September. In 1990 SLORC nullified the results of parliamentary elections after the NDL won 80 percent of the vote.
In July Congress passed legislation allowing President Clinton to ban American investment in Burma if repression there worsened or if Suu Kyi was rearrested. SLORC claims she is being confined to her house "for her own safety," but the demonstrations already have been suppressed, and Suu Kyi says she is being "wrongfully restrained" from leaving her home.
It's also arguable that SLORC's human-rights record has worsened in recent months, though it always has been dismal. Rights abuses include torture and rape, absence of free speech and assembly, warfare against ethnic minorities, forced labor, and drug trafficking - an issue that reaches beyond Burma and neighboring countries.
Gradually, pressure on companies that do business in Burma has escalated. In Massachusetts, for example, Gov. William Weld signed a selective purchasing law that the commonwealth avoid contracts with companies that do business in Burma. Since that signing in June, four companies - Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, Apple Computer, and Eastman Kodak - have withdrawn from Burma. All cited the potential loss of Massachusetts contracts as contributing to their decision. Other states or cities should follow suit; several already have.
Steps by Burma's neighbors are even more important. Burma hopes to become a full member in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) next year. Typically, ASEAN stays out of member countries' domestic politics. But Burma's behavior is hard to ignore. ASEAN countries are in the best position to firmly encourage its military leaders to change that behavior. Much is at stake.