Autumn, '97


by Mr. Minn Aung Myint

Since 1988, the plight of the Burmese people under successive repressive dictatorships has come to the attention of the international community. Even before the famous demonstrations in Tianamen Square, the call for democracy and human rights emanated from a country that had been ostracized from the international fraternity for many years. No one - not even the Burmese people themselves - would have expected the outburst of public will and courage in such a resounding manner. However, the Burmese had been suffering all kinds of human rights abuses imaginable and uprisings are the fateful culmination of decades of sporadic, and mostly silent, protests against the brutal suppression of even the slightest expression of democratic rights.

Recently, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) accepted Burma and Laos as fully fledged members after a short time as observers. It is now likely that Cambodia will also be accepted in the near future even in the face of the chaos caused by the recent coup-de-tat. The agenda behind ASEAN's latest move is to acquire a "unified South East Asia" by virtue of having all ten countries as members. The ASEAN states have long promoted the concept of "constructive engagement" which is, according to them, aimed at fostering the process of the transition from military dictatorship to civilian government in Burma. Amongst those who oppose the military dictatorship and the absence of the rule of law in Burma, this "constructive engagement" is seen as a cynical opportunity by the ASEAN countries to exploit the natural resources of Burma at the expense of the Burmese people. Singapore and Thailand have long told the European countries and those expatriate groups who oppose the dictatorship, that by trading with Burma, the country will be opened up, will expand economically and the people will naturally benefit. There is no expression of interest in beginning a democratic process in Burma from any of those states who support "constructive engagement". Again it is not really surprising that this is the case as those countries who support "constructive engagement" are only partial democracies themselves. It is little wonder then, that despite ASEAN's protests, activists abroad, the governments of the United States, Australia and most others of the world continue to charge ASEAN with exploiting the people of Burma. ASEAN in its determination to admit Burma is helping to keep the people of Burma in what some have called a "national prison", where slave labor, torture, corruption, and imprisonment without trial are common place. Membership into ASEAN has given SLORC a sense of security and will make them more arrogant and brutal than ever. With these generals in power, Burma will remain one of the eleven Most Underdeveloped Countries in the world. The Alliance of Japanese Diet Memb! ers Supporting Democracy in Burma have recently said that, "in light of the general election of 1990, principles applied to Official Development Agency, Japan has frozen development assistance to Burma": the USA, Europe and Australia have done the same. It should be noted here that ASEAN shall now have to bear full responsibility for SLORC's arrogant suppression of its own people because they accepted Burma into their grouping. The so-called regional Realpolitik is a major consideration in Suharto's move and this is the Realpolitik of authoritarianism. Suharto is increasingly worried about the pressures for democratization in Indonesia, which he sees as being influenced by the rising pressures for greater democracy throughout the region. Bringing in more non-democratic regimes would strengthen the authoritarian pole and give it the balance of power within ASEAN. The responsibility which will fall into the hands of the regional grouping is to urge the SLORC to leave its deceits at the door. SLORC has a long way to go before it earns its ASEAN spurs, and may well yet give the regional bloc cause for regret. ASEAN must now prove to the world that constructive engagement, which includes as an important component, Burma's ASEAN membership, can work for the people of the country not just for the benefit of the SLORC and the ruling elite. By admitting Burma as a member, ASEAN member nations have tak! en on an enormous responsibility which must be realized or they will face the wrath of the Western world. Lets not forget it is this same Western world that the ASEAN Member States so depend on for trade and investment. EU has told Rangoon in no uncertain terms that ASEAN membership does not translate into automatic status at the ongoing EU-Asian trade talks. EU is not about to take for granted all of ASEAN's members without some give on the dual demons of human rights abuses and political suppression. South East Asia's desire to counter-balance Chinese influence in the region is a main reason ASEAN decided to admit Burma. The real reason behind the decision is a more long-term outlook and involves concerns about the growing major regional power of China. One of the reasons ASEAN accepted Burma as a member is that it sees Beijing as a long-term threat to smaller nations in the region. ASEAN countries are worried about the long-term implications of China's power. And one of the things holding ASEAN together is a common desire to have a counterweight to China and to be strong so that China doesn't overwhelm them. That is part of the motivation to bring Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Burma into ASEAN ASEAN would never identify China publicly as an adversary. In fact, one of the major reasons for the creation of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) back in 1994 was to attempt to incorporate China into a larger security discussion arrangement. It was hoped that by bringing China into security discussion, somehow China's behavior could be moderated so that they would not openly threaten force to resolve its claims on South East Asian waters and territories. In fact it may well be that by including weak and corrupt governments into the ASEAN fold they, in fact weaken their position and make themselves more vulnerable to the threat of China. They most certainly have already lessened their credibility with Western and European nations by admitting despots. ASEAN should adopt a "more comprehensive" policy toward Burma after admitting the country. ASEAN can no longer employ "constructive engagement" with just the SLORC, it must expand that to include the democratic forces of the country. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said it was clear that the ASEAN policy of "constructive engagement" with SLORC was not working. She added that ASEAN should be constructively engaging with the National League for Democracy if it was sincere in its approach. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratic governments have said admission of Burma into ASEAN is tantamount to legitimizing the SLORC which has been accused of widespread human rights violations. "We do not think constructive engagement has worked," Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said. "The fact that SLORC rejected ASEAN's call for dialogue proves this." If ASEAN is willing to recognize the elected representatives of Cambodia, logically, it should do the same for Burma. Malaysia's Foreign Minister Datuk Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has called on the Cambodian government under Hun Sen to ensure that the National Assembly and other democratic institutions in that country are not dissolved. However, how sad and unfortunate that Datuk Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has not used the occasion to call on the SLORC generals to hand over power to the National League for Democracy (NLD) under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, in accordance with the democratic verdict of the Burmese people as expressed through the general election on the 27th of May 1990. If ASEAN had failed to convince Cambodia political forces to co-exist peacefully, how would the "constructive engagement" with Burma work? ASEAN leaders say that they will deal with the government of Burma regardless of whoever is in power. We also remember ASEAN foreign ministers unanimously say that only by "engaging", one can change the situation. Why do they not engage with the NLD and DASSK? ASEAN has NEVER insisted on the criteria that a member-government should be democratic nor does it abide by the criteria of non-usage of violence in maintaining power. ASEAN places economic priority over the values of human rights and democracy. If ASEAN is to stand up as a credible regional grouping in the world, it has to start developing a consistent human rights standard in its diplomatic dealings. ASEAN must be aware since Burma joined ASEAN, progressive and freedom-loving people in this region have a greater and more difficult task to struggle for democracy and human rights not only in Burma, but also in all of the ASEAN states. Granting ASEAN membership to SLORC is equivalent to giving it a license to kill. SLORC will become more arrogant because of its new found status and will increase the killing, rape, torture, drug production and widespread repression.

VISIONS AND ACTIONS FOR PEACE In an age when the entire international community is calling for peace and an end to civil, political, and economic repression, it is a ruthless shock to comprehend the fact that millions and millions of people still have to bear the wrath of numerous oppressive regimes around the world. Human rights are being violated at an alarming rate, today. One outstanding example of brutal atrocities committed by a repressive military dictatorship can be found in Burma: or "The Golden Land" as it was famously known during the colonial period. Since 1962, when the then military unlawfully seized power by force, the people of Burma have been subjected to outright violation of every conceivable civil and political rights because successive military-led governments have resorted to physical and psychological torture as a means of combating the outcry for freedom and democracy. The most notorious display of this insolent denial of human rights occurred in 1988 when thousands of pro-democracy students and civilians were slaughtered by the soldiers. The popular uprising was paradoxically used by the dictators as an excuse for the emergence of the so-called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) - one of the most barbarous and despotic regimes in history. Since 1988, incidents of abuse and torture of political prisoners along with deployment of forced labor for construction projects to benefit the military have characterized the actions of the oppressive junta. House arrest of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, had brought the massive violations of human rights to the attention of the international public. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, while she and her supporters are in constant fear of mental and physical attacks by SLORC and its treacherous stooges, has repeatedly called on the international community to boycott SLORC's attempt at luring much-needed foreign exchange to boost their military might by promoting Burma as a tourist attraction. SLORC is being called upon by the United Nations to address the issue of human rights violations in Burma and yet it arrogantly continues to commit still more violations. In the light of recent student protests calling for student rights and democracy, hundreds of students and activists have been arrested and universities and schools have been closed down without prior warning. This is just one example of the fact that any form of political opposition to SLORC is dealt with swiftly and brutally. As a result of the tight grip SLORC commands socially and economically over the populace, abject poverty has spread throughout the country like a bush-fire. The use of heroin is on the rapid increase as is the spread of AIDS. Lack of basic education for the majority of Burmese will have drastic effects in the future in terms of moral, ethical and spiritual decay. Although the drug and AIDS problems have been well documented and condemned by concerned international organization! s, SLORC still refuses to acknowledge that there is a problem. Burma under SLORC has become known as a safe haven for notorious drug lords in the region; the most infamous ones being Khun Sa and Lo Hsing-han. More recently Li Mun-Chung who is a fugitive from Thailand and wanted in the United States for his involvement in smuggling 486 kilograms of heroin to the U.S. in May 1991 has entered the drug baron's heaven. Nowadays, SLORC controls almost every facet of life for the Burmese although there still exists some border areas of Burma which are liberated from SLORC's tyranny. However, ethnic and pro-democracy guerrillas are in a no better situation. Forced to flee to the mountains along the border areas and to fight constantly for their lives, they are comprised of Burma's significant ethnic minority as well as students and political activists who fled Rangoon after SLORC's bloody coup in 1988. The majority of these people have to endure life in over-crowded refugee camps along the borders. The Karen forces whose territory is situated on the Thai-Burmese border have had to deal with the massive influx of political refugees and those who have run for their lives from SLORC's sadistic whim. The situation has so far strangled the meager resources that are available in the said area. In addition to that, SLORC has very recently launched a mammoth military offensive against the Karen deploying ten army divisions and more than thirty-thousand soldiers. Although the Thai government seems on the surface to be openly supporting and providing a safe heaven for refugees from Burma; in reality, it often treats them very harshly and forces them back across the border. This is in spite of claims by the refugees that they dare not return to Burma until it is free. The entire issue of the political stability in Burma and the social welfare of her people is a complex one with no quick answers as is the case for many other countries experiencing the brutal burdens of oppressive military dictatorships. However, with the next millennium approaching, visions for peace have become a primary concern for the international community. Achieving them is not an easy task but is one that is very much worth the effort in the light of the fact that so many people around the world have suffered and are suffering from violence and inhumanity under oppressive regimes. Therefore, I hereby conclude that the goal towards internal peace within each nation, and hence the ultimate world peace, is an ambition that the international community should first and foremost strive ardently to achieve. .

[Mr. Minn Aung Myint is the coordinator
of the Burma Office in Australia.].

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