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Business as usual with the Burmese generals

Elliot Wilson explains why international condemnation of Burma’s brutal military leaders is so ineffectual: because many other countries are eager to do deals with them

18 June 2008

12:00 AM

18 June 2008

12:00 AM

Elliot Wilson explains why international condemnation of Burma’s brutal military leaders is so ineffectual: because many other countries are eager to do deals with them

The satirist P.J. O’Rourke once noted that the more references to democracy a country has in its official title, the greater the chance it is run by a grubby totalitarian regime. Hence the People’s Republic of China and the Kim dynasty’s heroically misleading ‘Democratic People’s Republic’ of North Korea.

Burma — or Myanmar, as its leaders prefer — has its equivalent in the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). This is essentially a rebadged version of the less fluffy-sounding State Law and Order Restoration Council, a name that was dropped in 1997 perhaps due to its unappealingly Dungeons-and-Dragons-esque acronym: SLORC. For Burma’s brutal military junta, which has ruled with mediaeval barbarism since 1988, the ‘Peace’ portion of the title signals the army’s self-proclaimed right to maintain internal stability by keeping a malnourished populace crushed underfoot and holding the revered opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under indefinite house arrest.

Even when Cyclone Nargis tore through the country’s southern delta in early May — causing damage estimated at £5 billion and leaving as many as 200,000 dead — the junta closed the door on foreign aid, apparently preferring to see Burmese people die. The Economist Intelligence Unit called it Burma’s ‘worst-ever natural disaster’, with up to 2.5 million people displaced and most of them still lacking adequate food, shelter or drinking water. That brings us to the ‘Development’ aspect of the SPDC: Burma could get away with rejecting offers of assistance from, among others, the British, French, Americans and Chinese, largely because so many countries, including potential donors, are morally compromised in their dealings with these tinpot dictators.

Take France, which parked a naval vessel off the Burmese coast throughout May, laden with aid destined for the battered Irrawaddy Delta. After repeated refusals to allow the boat to dock, the French government was left with no choice but to reroute its life-saving cargo to Thailand. Paris declared itself shocked at the Burmese military’s recalcitrance, saying that nothing could justify cyclone victims being ‘denied the basic right’ to aid. Yet the best way for the French to help Burmese people is to stop funding their rulers. In 2005, Burma Campaign UK noted that the Paris-based oil giant Total had for many years been the ‘largest European funder of the regime’, allowing the junta to pocket between £100 million and £225 million in tax revenues every year.

In late 2007, just months before Nargis tore through southern Burma, French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner rejected allegations that Total was a de facto ally of the Rangoon regime, or that Total’s presence prevented the EU from imposing cohesive sanctions. French touchiness on the issue is palpable: spokesmen defend Total’s ethically untenable position by claiming that if Total abandoned Burma, it would simply be replaced by Chinese energy giants such as PetroChina and CNOOC, which would not bat an eyelid at sucking out Burma’s vast gas reserves to power China’s booming economy.

To its (relative) credit, China has at least been upfront about its support for Burma’s leaders — however amoral this stance may be. China does not have a conscience to be salved by offering aid at the front door while sucking valuable natural resources out the back. Beijing imports gems, precious metals and timber across its vast land border with Burma, and has long been an active supporter of the junta, propping it up with diplomatic aid — including the threat of a veto at the UN should sanctions ever be seriously considered — and financial support.

China has pumped billions of dollars of investment into Burma over the past decade. It is currently building a huge blue-water port in the Bay of Bengal — a potential docking facility for China’s increasingly powerful navy — and an oil and gas pipeline that will snake from offshore fields at Sittwe across the country to the Chinese province of Yunnan.

The big loser in all this has been India, which is even more conflicted over Burma than France. Democratic Delhi’s heart demands that it at least superficially condemns its despotic neighbour. But its head warns that it needs access to Burma’s energy reserves. India also fears the rising influence of China across South Asia. Beijing is in cahoots with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, which is allowing China to build yet another blue-water port at Gwadar, west of Karachi. India’s fear of being surrounded by Chinese naval facilities protected by Beijing-friendly administrations means that the Indian urge to condemn Burma is severely circumscribed.

Other investors in Burma’s energy sector include corporations from Australia, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Russia and — inevitably, for all its impotent sabre-rattling at the Burmese regime — the US. But the two nations most complicit in aiding Burma’s generals, and maintaining their lavish lifestyles, are Thailand and Singapore.

On the one hand, the Thai capital, Bangkok, is the key meeting point for expatriate and exiled Burmese as well as foreign journalists who cover Burma; and the Thais provide millions of dollars of humanitarian aid to their neighbour each year. Yet Thailand’s hugely powerful military — which basically runs the country — continues to line the pockets of senior Burmese officers. In September 2006, Thai commander-in-chief Sonthi Boonyaratkalin visited Burma with a view to strengthening military co-operation. By happy coincidence, the Thai government chose the same week to announce Burma’s largest ever inward ‘foreign direct investment’ deal — £3 billion for a hydroelectric dam on the remote Thanlwin river, to which China will contribute a further £1 billion. The dam, set for completion in 2009, will flood the homelands of the besieged Karen, Shan and Karenni minorities who are struggling for independence in the wild east of the country.

More odious still is the position of Singapore, a city-state that likes to present itself as a haven of transparency, untainted by corruption. Yet analysts and spooks consistently highlight the depth of Singapore corporate involvement in Burma. In 2001 Matthew Sim, a Singapore diplomat who had served in Rangoon, published Myanmar on My Mind. Nominated by the Far Eastern Economic Review as ‘the most politically incorrect book of the year’, it counsels any Singaporean who kills a pedestrian while at the wheel of a vehicle in Burma to ‘pay a local citizen to take the blame by declaring he was the driver’.

As The Spectator’s respected Jarkarta-based contributor Eric Ellis has also pointed out, more disturbing still is the almost complete institutionalisation of Singaporean investment in the country. William Ashton, an authority on Burma’s military, has described in Jane’s Defence Weekly how a group of corporations collectively known as ‘Singapore Inc’ have shipped all manner of military equipment to the junta. The brains of this operation is provided by the state investment firm Temasek, together with arms suppliers such as Singapore Technologies. The gaggle of corporations comprising Singapore Inc has an estimated £1.5 billion invested in Burma. Credit cards used in Burma are almost always routed via Singapore for authorisation.

And the door opens both ways. In exchange for allowing unfettered access for Singaporean hoteliers and tour operators, Burma uses the Lion City as its window to the world. Singapore has aided Burma’s top brass in all sorts of ways: for example, providin
g the ailing leader, Senior General Than Shwe, with medical help as he battles cancer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, with so much illicit cash flooding into and out of Burma, urban myths easily take root. One — hard to corroborate, but widely told — concerns cash coming from China via Singapore and Thailand to fund testing of new drugs and medical equipment on unsuspecting and unwilling Burmese peasants, mirroring the situation in Africa portrayed in John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener. Given the junta’s cavalier disregard for the lives of its own people, anything seems possible.

Meanwhile, things just seem to get worse for Burma’s 55 million citizens. The Economist Intelligence Unit has tipped GDP growth to fall from 3.3 per cent in 2007 to 1.5 per cent this year, while a post-Nargis fall in agricultural production could push inflation to 42 per cent. Meanwhile domestic consumption, such as it is, will continue to fall, with the Burmese preferring to keep their savings locked up in gems and precious metals. That’s due to the junta’s predilection for disguising the ruin they have wrought by periodically knocking a couple of zeroes off the local currency, the kyat. Presumably, to this loathsome regime, that embodies their cock-eyed devotion to ‘peace’ and ‘development’.

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