We need to get tough with Burma

Ellie Tesher- COLUMNIST
Toronto Star Online
Dec 04 2001

IT'S MORE than orchestrated events celebrating a heroic woman leader that makes the fate of the Burmese population relevant in these times.

It goes beyond the incredible fortitude of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose championship of freedom while under a decade of isolating house arrest has been the strongest voice of courage since Nelson Mandela.

The world has learned painfully since Sept. 11 about what happens to a country like Afghanistan during a five-year regime bent on repression. Yet daily atrocities have been inflicted in Burma since 1988 by the most brutal regime in 40 years of military rule there.

There's new reason for the West to pay attention: Reports last month from the Indian press and BBC Radio that two Pakistani nuclear scientists - Dr. Suleiman Asad and Dr. Mohammad Ali Mukhtar - both alleged to have links with Osama bin Laden, were granted asylum by the Burmese State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) military government, according to a Democratic Voice of Burma reporter based in India. Burmese activists believe the junta provided sanctuary in support of terrorism.

The generals maintain their power through internal terror and isolation from the outside world. Their abuses are shadowed from view since more journalists are imprisoned there than in any other country; and access to the Internet and fax machines is outlawed unless for use by the military or businesses they approve.

The cynical change of the nation's name to Myanmar twisted the next generation's ability to learn its own history, as did closing down higher education but for military schools, and impoverishing the people so that few can afford even basic schooling.

Periodic condemnation from the international community has occasionally moved the ruling junta, but not for long. Not when the West's trade interests override their humanitarian policies.

Canada, for example, supports the pro-democracy movement and in 1997 removed preferential trade tariffs, yet our imports have tripled since then - to $65 million from $20 million, mostly in garments and shrimp.But that is nothing compared to increased Canadian investment - a whopping $400 million in mining, with companies registered in Canada for tax benefits, the largest being Ivanhoe Mines, registered in the Yukon, forming 50-50 partnerships with the corrupt regime.

Worse, 90 per cent of Canada's illegal heroin comes from Burma, as reported by then foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy in August, 1999, moving Ottawa to break its boycott on relations with Burma to open talks on the drug issue. To their credit, Reitmans Inc. and Wal-Mart stopped importing Burmese-made clothing - especially after news reports that one of the factories Wal-Mart used was owned by a notorious drug lord.

The United States has, by contrast, banned new investments since 1997 and 22 American companies have left Burma, including Perry Ellis, Pottery Barn and PepsiCo.

Dr. Alice Khin, now of Edmonton, was personal physician to Suu Kyi and her political supporters until they were imprisoned or dispersed after the pro-democracy party Suu Kyi headed swept to victory in 1990 elections, which were then forcibly overturned by the regime. A pulmonary specialist in the Rangoon hospital in 1988 (that city's name has been changed to Yangon), when a non-violent popular demonstration took place, she counted 500 wounded and dead, shot by the military, in that one area.

"Across the country, thousands were killed," she says, "far more than at Tiananmen Square a year later, but there was no television, no world press to record it."

The world learned of it, however, from the many like her who were arrested and forced to flee to survive. Since then, the ruling junta, which has proven sensitive to international lobbying in order to increase trade connections, has gotten away with torture and execution of dissidents, enslavement of ethnic groups, appropriation of farmers' rice crops, leaving whole villages near starvation, and countless more horrors.

The West's protests have clearly been too mild and distant, the policies too weak to do harm economically, where it matters to the military.

You can join the Dec. 8 international salute to Suu Kyi and campaign for her and the Burmese people, by logging on before then to [the] Burma Peace Campaign and finding out how to participate.

On Dec. 10, Human Rights Day, there'll be a 10 a.m. public demonstration outside Queen's Park. Supporters are calling for a long-promised resolution in the Legislature demanding the immediate release of Suu Kyi and all political prisoners, recognizing the committee representing the people's elected parliament and ondemning the military's human rights abuses.

It's the least we can do.

Date last changed: 2010 March 21

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