BURMA: Ex-dissident Stirs Anger by Seeking Stop to U.S. Sanctions
By Tim Shorrock
WASHINGTON, Oct 31 — A former aide to Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is stirring up anger among exiled dissident groups for calling on the U.S. Congress and human rights groups to end their economic sanctions against the military regime in Rangoon.
"To target innocent people makes me very very bitter," Ma Thanegi, a Burmese writer who spent three years in prison after working as the personal assistant to Suu Kyi in the early 1990s, said of the U.S. sanctions against Burma. "This is economic terrorism. It won't bring economic change and won't even bring any positive change. It is so unfair and so cruel."
Thanegi is a contributing editor to the 'Myanmar Times', one of a handful of publications tolerated by the Burmese government. In a speech at a forum here sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, she said economic sanctions against Burma do not hurt the government but instead threaten the livelihood of "totally innocent workers", including more than 200,000 women employed in the garment industry.
A sanctions bill under consideration in the U.S. Senate, she said, would force 300 to 400 factories to close, putting thousands of young women out of work and forcing many of them to become prostitutes to survive. "Why can't there be other means than to target people without skills, and women?" she asked.
Thanegi's comments did not draw much sympathy from the audience, which appeared to be composed primarily of student and human rights activists, with a few business people and State Department officials also in attendance.
During her question-and-answer session, Thanegi was barraged with hostile questions from the activists. They demanded to know where she got her statistics, who she was representing and why she refrained from asking tough questions of Burma's military leaders in her capacity as a journalist.
"In 1998, we asked for democracy and a lot of people were killed in the streets," said one activist, referring to the violent crackdown on the opposition by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), as the ruling junta was then called.
It seized power in September 1988 and refused to abide by the results of a 1990 election, which gave Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy 392 out of 485 parliamentary seats.
With Rangoon holding thousands of political prisoners and resorting to torture and other forms of repression against dissidents, "the only power we have is the ability to impose some economic restrictions on the country," said a student.
As Thanegi spoke, some in the crowd passed out leaflets calling her "the dictator's spokesperson".
Thanegi replied that she spoke "as an ordinary person who knows all levels of society". The people of Burma, she asserted, "want peace and more freedom, but they also want economic prosperity".
Throughout her talk, Thanegi referred to her country as Myanmar, using the name adopted by the Rangoon regime — now called the State Peace and Development Council — but rejected by the United States and most dissidents. Burma, she said, was the name forced on the country by Britain during colonial occupation. "I feel the name should have been changed immediately after independence," she said.
David Steinberg, a former U.S. diplomat in Asia who has written a book about Burma, responded to Thanegi's remarks by pointing out that military control of the economy was "enormous".
"Even if Suu Kyi came to power, the military will have massive influence that could control the markets," he said. "It will be a quasi-market society."
U.S. policy toward Rangoon, he said, was based on the military's refusal to honor the results of the legitimate election of 1990. "There's no doubt about what the NLD did in that election; it devastated the military and the military-backed parties."
The United States formally imposed sanctions on Burma in 1990, and the policy has received bipartisan support from the U.S. Congress. The issue of human and labour rights in Burma has also become a major issue for local government.
Over the past decade, many cities and states have passed ordinances banning their governments from doing business with U.S. corporations, such as Unocal, that continue to do business with Burma.
These campaigns have been fueled by reports from Amnesty International detailing the widespread use of torture by the Burmese military regime and reports from the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and other groups of forced labour, massive relocations of minority peoples and numerous other human rights abuses.
In recent years, U.S. business groups have challenged the sanctions movement, saying local laws favouring sanctions violate the Constitution's requirement that U.S. foreign policy should be conducted by the federal government. Last year, in a landmark decision, the Supreme Court agreed with their arguments.
That has inspired several bills in Congress that would extend sanctions in Burma and ban U.S. investment until Rangoon releases all political prisoners, concludes its ongoing dialogue with Suu Kyi, provides assurances that it is not employing foreign labour and makes substantial progress in halting the flow of narcotics.
"That means we are guilty until proved innocent," said Thanegi. "That I find very strange in a country like the United States."
During a visit to Rangoon in January, Steinberg said he told the military "at a senior level" that the Republican Party, reflecting the views of its business supporters, generally does not like sanctions.
"But no administration, even a Republican one, can lift those sanctions unless you do something significant, something substantial," he told the military. "But nothing has happened."
In any case, Steinberg said, the relationship between market capitalism and democratic development "is not a simple matter". He pointed out that South Korea began its export push in 1961 but did not have political liberalisation until 1987. In addition, "business wants predictability, and in Burma you have no predictability," he said.
During her talk, Thanegi admitted some problems with the press in Burma but said the situation was improving. "Censorship still exists," she said. "But compared to (the period of) socialism, there are many good magazines. There are very good articles about finance and economics."
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent organisation that monitors the media around the world, paints a very different picture, however. In its 2000 report on the state of the press in Burma, the centre said "conditions for journalists in Burma are among the worst in the world and showed no sign of improvement".
"All media outlets are either owned or controlled by the (military government). The handful of private journals allowed to publish face strict licensing requirements, and all published material must be submitted to the official Press Scrutiny Board for approval. Most foreign journalists are barred from the country," it said.
Thanegi's publication, the 'Myanmar Times', was the first privately owned newspaper allowed to publish by Rangoon, CJP said. The publication, "a joint venture between a local firm and an Australian businessman, showed no evidence of independence, however, merely presenting government propaganda more professionally than the clumsy official press," the report said.
Asked to comment, Thanegi said the 'Times' "does go through censorship. I know we try to push for press freedom, but sometimes we get censored." (IPS/2001)