Thursday, February 05, 1998

Eyes Wide Shut

by Ong Ju Lin

While ASEAN celebrates the ASEAN-10 on its 30th anniversary, all is not well with the new kid in the block. Ong Ju Lin takes a critical look at ASEAN’s policy of “constructive engagement” with Myanmar.

Ah Thwin operates a small food stall near Shwedagon Pagoda, catering to both local devotees of the temple and tourists. This unassuming young man was a Math student at Yangon University until it was closed indefinitely by the military government more than a year ago. As a hive of democratic activism, the government has reason to fear another revolt by students similar to the one ten years ago. Unable to finish his degree, Ah Thwin supports his family selling rice and serving Fanta drinks.

Ah Thwin chats with us animatedly. He is knowledgeable and offers his views on the socioeconomic situation of his country readily. But when asked about his position on the current political impasse, he whispered: “You know The Lady?” and took furtive glances around him as if making sure no one heard him. He said no more.

The following day we visited his stall again. This time Ah Thwin was not his usual self. He stayed away from our table, coming over only to take orders. We were perplexed. As we left, I noticed a Tatmadaw uniform hanging on a partition wall next to his stall and a soldier was in there taking a nap. When I looked at Ah Thwin, he averted his eyes. When I raised my camera to ask him if he minded I took his picture, he waved and covered his face with his hands.

Fear is pervasive in the daily lives of Burmese. The 1989 bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators appears to be still fresh in the minds of the people. Since then, more than 100,000 have fled Myanmar fearing political persecution. Today 12,000 refugees face an uncertain future, languishing on the borders of Thailand.

In Myanmar, state control in everyday life is tangible. No one can spend a night in another’s house without clearance from the local authorities. And “there are spies everywhere,” says a woman, looking about her when I asked her what she thought about Aung San Suu Kyi.

Although the official figure puts defence spending at 11.4% of the total government expenditure, most external observers agree that Myanmar spends more than 40%, a very high percentage considering that Myanmar has no external enemies. Malaysia spends less then 5% for defence.

The high defence budget is said to be directly related to the tight political suppression under a one-party rule as well as its armed conflicts with its ethnic minorities.

In an effort to clear its belligerent image, the military junta has recently replaced its State, Law and Order Restorative Council to the State, Peace and Development Council. New faces were brought in and several officials were tried for corruption. General Than Shwe, the head of SPDC admits that to do well economically, it had to make changes and self improvement.

However despite these changes, human rights abuses continue to be reported throughout the country. According to the All Burma Student Democratic Front, in November 16, 1997, Myanmar’s newly formed SPDC was responsible for the killing of 13 people at the Kyat Taw village in the northern part of Arakan state. They claimed that the killings were the result of forced labour during the periodic operations to recruit porters for military troops operating in the region.

With new infrastructure projects underway, forced relocations and forced labour have driven thousands of refugees across the border to Thailand. In one of the refugee camps we went near Mae Hong Son on the Thai side, Sunshine, a 26-year old Karenni testifies. “I am unable to return to my village as it was attacked by troops. My parents are hiding in the jungles for fear of being taken as porters and workers for the troops.”

Win Myint Thant, a medical officer who has worked for six years said: “I have treated children who are forced to work from morning to night. They were only given rice water and had to sleep without blankets. Many were raped. Many died in my arms from malaria and starvation.”

As Myanmar opens its doors to foreign investments, development projects are taking away people’s lands, and instead, the people are forced to work in the projects as slave labour on their own land.

Violence and suppression of the Rohingyas Muslims in Myanmar are well documented by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations. In May last year, Malaysia Muslim Youth Movement (Abim) protested Myanmars entry into Asean. Abim secretary-general Ahmad Azam Abdul Rahman claimed the SLORC destroyed more than 30 mosques and properties belonging to Muslims in Myanmar. “Such suppression showed that the SLORC has no respect whatsoever for the constructive engagement policy advocated by Asean member countries,” he said.

The world is not blind to these human rights abuses, but neither has the world responded to the cries of the oppressed. The military junta continues to rule with an iron fist even without popular support. Its lost to the National League of Democracy (NLD) which commanded 82% of popular votes in the 1990 elections renders it an illegitimate government.

The irony is that now, the NLD has been recast, not only as an opposition party but thwarted from functioning as a legitimate party, says its secretary-general Aung San Suu Kyi. Many party leaders were jailed and she herself was on house-arrest from 1990 to 1995. The much-lauded “unconditional release” by the military junta turned out to be a sham.

“How can you call it unconditional release if the road to my house is blocked off and anybody who wants to visit me must get clearance from the authorities?” said Aung San Suu Kyi whose movement is still under constant surveillance by government spooks, the much feared Military Intelligence (MIs).

The NLD has called for economic sanctions against the military junta and the United States, Canada and several European countries have rallied to its support by imposing economic embargo on Myanmar.

But embargos are seldom imposed as a humanitarian gesture, but a political strategy. The United States that has been most vocal in condemning the military government and its human rights abuses is happily doing business with Myanmar’s dictators through its oil company Unocol. Its 28% stake in the Yadana Natural Gas Pipeline has caused the relocation of 11 villagers.

Closer to home, ASEAN countries have stood by SPDC causing a rift in Euro-Asia relationship. Recently, ASEAN celebrated its 30th anniversary fulfilling the ASEAN 10 with the admission of Myanmar. ASEAN started out as a government-to-government grouping of South East Asian countries, one of the reasons being to control the threat of communist influence in South East Asia. With the triumph of capitalism in the region, ASEAN functions more like a trade pact to promote trading among member countries.

In a show of solidarity, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Dr Mohamad Mahathir said: “If there is discrimination against Myanmar, it is discrimination against ASEAN.”

As ASEAN’s most vocal member, Malaysia acknowledge the human rights abuses and political suppression in Myanmar, but has chosen to turn a blind eye, citing ASEAN’s policy of non-interference in the domestic affair of a member country.

Local activists and international human rights bodies have criticized this policy of non-interference for allowing the violence and suppression in member countries, including Myanmar and East Timor, Indonesia to go uncheck. As a result, another political euphemism, the policy of “constructive engagement” has emerged in the ASEAN circle.

“We cannot expect changes in the short term. We have to give them some time. If we continue to isolate them, we cannot guarantee that the political situation in Myanmar will improve” said Malaysia’s foreign minister Abdullah Badawi, explaining the concept of constructive engagement with Myanmar.

University Malaya South East Asian expert Dr Shaharil Taib agrees, saying that ASEAN, by engaging Myanmar through trade will eventually lead the way to political change in the country.

“Democracy is being learned. We can’t measure it by British or American standards. The military government is trying to create a civil society and we must give them the chance. They are sending their ministers to learn form other South East Asian countries and holding meetings with other member countries. But they see threats and it is up to us to give them the assurance. We can give them trade. Trade has always been a harmonizing factor,” he says.

However, many would disagree. In South Africa, economic sanctions and worldwide condemnation of apartheid, and not economic engagement, played a role in the dismantling of the apartheid regime.

Aung Suu Kyi argues against ASEAN’s trade engagement with Myanmar saying that trade will only enriched the elites who are in power, and without a fundamental shift in the political framework, there cannot be sustainable economic development.

However, Teddy Buri, vice-president of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma sees ASEAN as a viable medium to pressure the military government for political change. Buri was an elected MP during the 1990 elections, but fearing persecution by the military junta when it took power, has lived in exile since 1992. The coalition which claims to be the legitimate government of Burma, constitutes elected parliamentarians and operates in exile.

He hopes that ASEAN will dialogue with the Myanmar military government on political changes. “ASEAN is not an island. It has to deal with the World Bank, the European Union, and other economic pacts. They must please their dialogue partners too. So I am optimistic that there will be pressure for change.”

While Myanmar takes timid steps towards opening up its market, democracy is still far from view. Malaysia champions human rights and advocates for democracy in the case of South Africa and Bosnia, but appears to turn the other way when it comes to Myanmar. As a maturing country, for Malaysia, the case of Myanmar begs for more consistency in foreign policy.

Published in the Sun Megazine, February 5, 1998