Burmese exiles in freedom plea
On Saturday, 18 March, the Freedom of the City of Dublin was conferred on the 1991 Nobel Peace Laureate and Leader of Burma's National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, a woman who symbolises the resistance of the Burmese population to the military regime that has oppressed them for the last 38 years. In a shared ceremony, U2 and their manager also received the award.
In the last month, a group of 17 Burmese from different ethnic groups and political organisations who are living in exile met in Dublin to prepare themselves for a future transition from military to civilian rule, from dictatorship to democracy.
Contracts signed by Burma's military government with oil corporations TOTAL (French-based) and the US-based UNOCAL have meant the compulsory relocation of thousands of people and much forced labour
Until that day comes, the situation in Burma remains repressive. The military-run State Law and Order Restoration Council was set up in 1988 to stifle the people's calls for democracy. In 1997, its name was changed to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), a purely cosmetic exercise.
As Saw Doh Say, a member of the Karenni National Progressive Party, explains, in 1990 there were elections in Burma in which the pro-regime National Unity Party took part and allowed all other parties to participate as well. Unexpectedly, the National Unity Party won just 2% of the vote, while the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, took a landslide 83% share. But the military did not recognise the result of the election and refused to transfer power to her party. After some weeks, they arrested leading NLD members, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who was put under house arrest for nearly six years. Some of those elected to the Assembly had to flee to other countries, such as Thailand, while others joined the groups of people who had been fighting the military regime from the jungle.
Today, it seems that the military regime is as far as ever from handing over power. Furthermore, the military's political role may soon be enshrined in a new constitution, which establishes the right of the military to appoint 110 of 440 seats in the proposed Lower House of Representatives and 56 of the 224 members of the Upper House.
The new arrangements are highly unlikely to be accepted by Burma's different ethnic groups. As Saw Doh Say points out: ``Democracy and ethnic issues are the main problems in Burma. There are seven main ethnic groups in Burma. They are fighting for equality and greater power. These groups have been fighting for generations and decades. Even with different objectives, they are fighting under the same umbrella in order to end the military regime.''
In 1988, students, political parties and ethnic groups demonstrated against military rule. The response by the regime was brutal, forcing political activists, students and ethnic groups' representatives to flee to the jungle. Since then, these groups have been fighting together. ``Since 1988, a lot of the people who were forced to hide in the jungle have been fighting against the armed forces, against the dictatorship in Thailand,'' says Saw Doh Say. ``These political and ethnic groups are fighting together for democracy.''
Naw Zipporah Sein is the secretary of the Karen Women's Organisation. She discusses the endemic human rights abuses under Burma's military government. The use of forced labour is part of everyday life in Burma. ``Forced labour includes men, women and children, and when I say women, I am including pregnant women and breast-feeding women,'' she says. ``They are forced to build roads, railways, and barracks for the soldiers and to carry supplies for them on the front line. They also have to work on the army plantations, where rice is cultivated to feed the troops. This happens in the areas controlled by the SPDC. If they refuse to carry out the forced labour, they have to face the punishment. For the men it could be death, torture, and physical abuse. For the women, it will be rape, and sometimes they will be killed.''
The brutality of the military regime has driven large numbers of Burma's people to refugee camps in Thailand, Bangladesh and India. Burma's is the largest refugee population in Asia, with over 100,000 people on the Thai-Burmese border alone. Most of these refugees are members of the ethnic groups which have been fighting for equality for the last 40 years and have been forced from their villages and attacked by government forces. Whole villages have also been cleared from areas where logging, gem and gas pipeline contracts have been awarded to Thai and Western companies.
Burmese in Thailand are not recognised as refugees but as temporarily displaced people, which means that they have little protection. Since 1992 there has been increasing Thai pressure to move the camps over the border, back into Burma.
In addition to this, an estimated 50,000 people from Burma seek work in Thailand every year. ``Many women from Burma are forced into prostitution in Thailand,'' explains Naw Zipporah Sein. ``These women have no choice if they want to survive. Some women don't even know that they are being sold for prostitution.''
The integration of Burma into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997 has only lent international legitimacy to the military regime. Burma has a very strategic geographic location, forming a natural connection between the Indian subcontinent and East Asia. The influence of China and India in the politics of the country has been important. Large quantities of weapons have been imported from China to expand Burma's army. Some analysts believe that the admittance of Burma to ASEAN was a ploy to move Burma away from China's influence.
``We are hoping that the international community will try to solve the situation in Burma and will put more pressure on Burma's government,'' says Naw Zipporah Sein. ``The government is looking for investors and funding, and whatever benefit they get from that investment will invest got to the army to assist their attacks on the ethnic groups that they want to eliminate completely.''
The European Union remains a significant trading partner for Burma, accounting for 30.9% of total exports. The contracts signed by Burma's government with oil corporations TOTAL (French-based) and the US-based UNOCAL have meant the compulsory relocation of thousands of people and much forced labour. The most important foreign investor in Burma is Britain, whose stake is worth $90.6 million annually.
Burma is now the world's major supplier of opium and heroin. Its production doubled after the current dictators took power in the 1988 coup. The World Health Organisation believes there are 500,000 heroin addicts in Burma alone, 1% of the population.
Geography: South-eastern Asia, bordering the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, between Bangladesh and Thailand, China, India and Laos, Burma is about the size of France. Its natural resources are petroleum, timber, tin, antimony, zinc, copper, tungsten, lead, coal, marble, limestone, precious stones and natural gas.
Population: 46,821,943 (July 1997)
Life expectancy: 56.62 years.
Ethnic groups: Burman 68%, Shan 9%, Karen 7%, Rakhine 4%, Chinese 3%, Mon 2%, Indian 2%, Other 5%
Languages: The official language is Burmese, although the other ethnic groups have their own languages