Like other human rights atrocities in Southeast Asia, like the Indonesian annexation of East Timor and the killing fields of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar goes largely ignored by its Asian neighbours.
For one, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) –of which Myanmar is a member –has always needed sharp prodding by the United Nations, United States of America, European Union or other members of the international community to keep its recalcitrant member in check. However, ASEAN is largely bound by its code of conduct –the primacy of state sovereignty and non-interference in member states’ internal affairs. Moreover, even if ASEAN remains concerned, this courtesy and respect is not returned by the renegade Myanmarese junta.
Predictably, it is only Western observers who will raise the issue and take action in a bid to alleviate the situation. However, they do not seem to have had much luck either –the sanctions they have imposed have only made the junta more stubborn and the civilians more destitute. Asian states in a stronger position to negotiate with Myanmar –like China, India and Thailand –intend to stay out of the dispute. Moreover, they do not want to jeopardize deals regarding Myanmar’s huge energy reserves. A January 2007 UN resolution calling for democracy in Burma was vetoed by Russia and China –Myanmar is scheduled to join the Asia Energy Security Grid, a major energy arrangement that will link Iran, Russia, China and Myanmar.
Over and above the torture and persecution of political opposition, including the house arrest of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, a recent report in the Bangkok Post said that more than 75,000 Burmese, mostly from the Karen and Shan ethnic minorities, have been displaced because of the Salween hydroelectric dam project funded by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, China's Sinohydro Corporation, and Thailand's MDX Group. The people have no choice but to flee to the Thai border or else risk being killed or captured for forced labour by the Myanmarese army. Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK, said, “What is happening in Karen and Shan State is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, it is tantamount to ethnic cleansing.”
As it stands, Thailand’s camps for Myanmarese refugees are already overcrowded and unsanitary. This week, human rights activists speaking at the launch of the World Refugee Survey 2006 by the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) have urged Thailand to establish a “more sincere and clearer policy to protect nearly a million undocumented immigrants fleeing to Thailand from various forms of persecution in their home countries”.
The dam project is a double-edged sword. Although there is widespread condemnation of the human rights violations, it would supply much-needed electricity. David Steinberg, the Director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, said, “The supply of electricity to Burma is absolutely vital. Whatever factories are there can only operate four or eight hours per day –it isn't reliable. So why would you invest, even if there weren't sanctions?” Steinberg also condemned the Western countries’ sanctions, saying, “The sanctions… weren't going to work from the very beginning. The pressure has to be such that there is a graceful way out, so that they can give in to the pressure without looking like they're giving in.”
Farmaner conceded, “For the cash-strapped Burmese government, the Salween dams will generate much-needed foreign currency. The country is debt-ridden and strangled by US sanctions and EU trade restrictions. This is the biggest foreign investment project in the history of the Burmese junta. It will earn huge profits for the Burmese government and give them more resources to maintain power. Ultimately, it will come at the expense of the Karen.” Of course, the companies involved in the dam project protest that no illegal labour is used. An anonymous representative of Thailand's MDX Group said, “All of the work is being done to international standards, all of the workers are happy.”
Meanwhile, UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari is visiting Japan, India and China this week “to help promote ‘positive changes’ in Myanmar, including the release of all political prisoners and promotion of democratic reforms”. U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said, “This is a trip to discuss Myanmar with some of the key countries in the region. Any effort to promote positive changes in Myanmar is going to require not only direct dialogue with the government and people of the country, but also dialogue with all interested countries and all who can potentially support our efforts. [Mr. Gambari] also intends to visitMyanmar again soon, although dates have not yet been settled.”
True to form, China is taking a hands-off approach to Myanmar. After Gambari’s visit, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, announced that “the situation in military-ruled Burma does not pose a threat to regional security, and that people there should be allowed to resolve their own problems and that China hopes its neighbour will have stability, economic development and peace”. No comment was made on Myanmar’s human rights record.
As the first of seven steps on a “road map to democracy”, Myanmar's National Convention is scheduled to resume on July 18 to draft guidelines for a new constitution, leading to elections. (12 July 2007)
Thailand urged to provide far greater assistance to refugees (Bangkok Post, 12 July 2007)
Gambari to discuss Burma with Indian Foreign Secretary (Mizzima News, 11 July 2007)
China Says Burma Can Solve Own Problems (VOA, 10 July 2007)
China Pressed by UN to Support Democracy in Myanmar (Bloomberg, 10 July 2007)
U.N. envoy visiting Asian nations to help promote "positive changes" in Myanmar (AP, 9 July 2007)
Atrocity before the Deluge (Bangkok Post, 7 July 2007)
Myanmar Still On Asean's Mind, Says Syed Hamid (Bernama, 30 June 2007)