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Burma and Divestiture

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Issue: 26 Section: Accounts Geography: Canada, South Asia Burma

February 16, 2005

Burma and Divestiture

After the Tsunami

by Shaughn McArthur

moustachebros.jpgThe Moustache Brothers are a traditional comedy and A-Nyeint Dance Troupe. Brother Lu-Maw (right) did six years of hard labour on a chain gang after telling political jokes at a pro-democracy rally in 1995. Photo: Shaughn McArthur
Coming from Southeast Asia's most xenophobic military government in the aftermath of the tsunami that caused a wave of humanitarian zeal around the world, a low official death toll in Burma does not inspire confidence or provide consolation.

UN estimates place Burma's tsunami casualties at 90, while the country's military government confirms only 61 casualties along some 2000 kilometers of coastline.

Refusing all international aid, Burma's authorities have not allowed any international monitors to enter its borders, even to assess damage.

Although the figures pale in comparison with those of neighbouring Thailand or India, critics of the State Peace and Development Council (SPCD) -- Burma's ruling junta -- are not concerned with the numbers themselves, but rather the discrepancy between them.

To those familiar with Burma's history, it symbolizes a more complicated conflict, rooted in 45 years of military rule, which over the past 15 years has left the South Asian nation effectively cut off from the world.

The (SPCD) has a reputation for downplaying disasters, and for keeping stringent control over outbound media.

Condemned by critics for outlawing fax machines, censoring television broadcasts and taking prisoners of conscience, Burma has been called the most information-starved country on earth. One example involved an attack on the convoy of Nobel Peace Laureate and democratic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, during her brief release from house arrest in 2003. Eyewitnesses estimated some 60 dead in the ensuing clash, while the SPDC reported only four. The event got little international coverage.

On August 8,1988, at the height of three-weeks of carnage, junta soldiers opened fire on thousands of unarmed demonstrators in the streets of Yangon. Reporting some 500 dead, military officials assured the world that everything was under control and that law and order would soon be restored.

Yet again, their figures differed drastically from those of civilian observers.

Referred to now by its date, the massacre of 8-8-88 is believed by the ambassadorial staffs that witnessed it to have claimed over 10,000 lives -- more, that is, than Tiananmen Square. Following the uprising, the military government embarked on a campaign to "cleanse" its national identity.

'Burma' became 'Myanmar'; and many cities, rivers -- even the SPDC itself (formerly State Law and Order Restoration Council) -- were also renamed. Not everybody acknowledged the changes, however.

In Canada, the colonial name "Burma" still applies.

"The Canadian government does not legally recognize SPDC sovereignty," explained Ranjan Banerji, of International Trade Canada. "Canada doesn't say, 'Myanmar'."

In 1990 the SPDC held Burma's first free election in 30 years. The National League for Democracy had won a landslide victory, carrying 82 percent of the vote, yet the military regime refused to step down.

In August 1997, the government of Canada placed Burma on its Area Control List (ACL) - a position it shares only with Angola -- and encouraged Canadian firms not to do business in that country, until it showed significant improvements. Implicit in the ACL are so-called "selective" trade sanctions, which required Canadian companies to obtain permission for all new exports to the listed countries, with humanitarian goods excepted.

Unable to punish the firms post facto, the government's sanctions had little effect on companies already invested in Myanmar. The government did not suggest that companies should renege on existing investments, so most of them carried on as usual.

Sears Canada and the Hudson's Bay Company, however, were among the few exceptions.

In 1999 and 1997 respectively, each voluntarily stopped sourcing products from Burma, becoming two of Canada's most important corporate divestures.

Often acting upon the wisdom of Ms. Suu Kyi, Burma solidarity-from-abroad groups have since the early 1990s campaigned against foreign companies operating in Burma, labeling them as the sponsors of state terrorism.

In 2000, the International Labour Organization (ILO) lead a campaign against the use of forced labour in Burma, to which the SPDC responded by issuing an order prohibiting the practice.

Five years later, the ILO say forced labour is still common practice.

Ivanhoe Mines is Canada's biggest investor in Burma.

It wholeheartedly denies any use of forced labour in clearing the way for their two copper mines in central Burma -- "voluntary" labour is the term they used in a statement to their shareholders.

Ivanhoe has also come under scrutiny for the forcible relocation of eight villages in June 2000 to make way for the mine. Company profiles for Ivanhoe point out that over 5,000 local livelihoods depend either directly or indirectly upon the two mines in Burma.

In a joint venture with Mining Enterprise No. 1, of the SPDC's Ministry of Mines, Ivanhoe Mines is soon to be Myanmar's largest foreign investor ever. The mining industry in Burma represents some $523 million in revenues annually. Ivanhoe itself is worth significantly more to that country than the sum of Canadian imports and exports, which in 2003 were worth less than $30 million (US).

Because most of its copper is sold in Japan and Ivanhoe contributes not goods to the project but personnel and money, it is free under Canadian legislation to do business in Burma. The problem in many cases is that companies in Burma have neither environmental accountability nor labour standards to meet, which creates significant opportunities for reducing costs.

Ivanhoe, for its part, is certified ISO 14001 - the so-called "green standard" - for its mines near Monywa, which use organic enzymes to break down the copper. Lacking the infrastructure to extract Burma's resources by itself, the SPDC provides manpower, incentives and 50 percent of the profits to foreign investors with better means.

Canada's selective sanctions are clearly no match for the junta's $7.9 billion annual income -- indeed, even the United States' more stringent policies fall short of starving the SPDC. Occasionally the SPDC grants Suu Kyi her freedom -- aid trickles in, until the coffers are filled - then she is re-sentenced, and foreign aid withdrawn.

Suu Kyi's latest sentence was extended by another year last November. Her phone was reported disconnected, and Democratic Party leaders said they had been barred from visiting since May.

On January 2nd, 2005, two days before Burma's 57th independence day, the SPDC released 5,588 prisoners. Among the prisoners were eight Democratic Party members, at least nine other political prisoners, and journalist Zaw Thet Htwee, 38, sentenced to death for treason in 2003.

Progress in Burma is painstaking, advances intermittent and forced; too often they amount to no more than jest, a minimum response to persistent critical dissent. However, and albeit silently, Burma's popular longing for democracy lives on.

It is unlikely that the SPDC will simply repent, and despite the UN's observances of increased openness of SPDC officials over the past few months, their behavior since the tsunami calls optimism into question.

It is impossible to know the full extent of Burma's suffering -- pre- or post-tsunami -- just as we may never know exactly how many Burmese lives it claimed. In the meantime, tsunami relief funds have been withheld from Burma, with efforts concentrated on Burmese refugee camps in Thailand instead.

As for the peacekeepers distributing aid rations, several reports out of Southern Thailand have accused them of "structural discrimination" against the illegal Burmese population in the region. It is believed that some 120,000 Burmese migrant workers in Thailand have been affected by the disaster.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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