Burma: Time to Put on the Pressure

Writer, journalist, and activist John Ralston Saul is the winner of the 1996 Governor-General's Award for non-fiction. As the keynote speaker at a Canadian Friends of Burma meeting in Ottawa on Nov. 16, he spoke of how Burma's ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) is not only an illegitimate regime, but one actively at war with the rest of the world through its dependence on the drug trade. Here Peace Magazine presents some excerpts from his speech.

By John Ralston Saul | 1997-01-01 12:00:00

The SLORC is not a body which is open to any form of negotiation in good faith. Nothing, absolutely nothing will be accomplished through attempting constructive engagement. We've attempted this formally now since 1962 [the SLORC was constituted in 1988 but the military had ruled the country for 25 years previously] and in that time they've destroyed Burma.

The SLORC is a government which fails by Asia's standards. We need to say to the other governments in Asia: "By your own standards, this is a rogue government."

I'm not talking about some sort of Hollywood-style battle between democracy and dictatorship, nor the West versus the East. Frankly, there are many traditions of government. Democracy is just one of them. It's not for us to impose our vision or our democracy, good or bad that it may be, on other places. In the world there are many traditions of benign dictatorships or monarchies which resemble democracy by having within them a social contract which is not very different from ours. When you break that social contract, whether you're a dictatorship or a democracy, you are no longer a legitimate government.

The Five Precepts of Buddhism

I was looking today at one of [Thai Buddhist thinker and activist] Sulak Sivaraksa's wonderful books on the sources of Buddhism. In the West, many rich and idle people think that Buddhism is a way to separate yourself from society. The SLORC, for its part, presents Buddhism as anti-politics; you embrace Buddhism and let us run the country. But Buddhism is not antisocial, not just about personal salvation.

Sulak says, "Any attempt to understand Buddhism apart from its social dimension is fundamentally a mistake. According to Scriptures, Buddhism must be supported by a just ruler who turns the wheel of State in the name of justice, who rules for the well-being of all."

There are five precepts of Buddhism:

  1. I vow to abstain from taking life.
    The SLORC calls itself a Buddhist regime. Few other regimes actually send regiments into the street to open fire with machine guns.

  2. I vow to abstain from stealing.
    The SLORC brought the country to its knees and filled bank accounts in Switzerland for themselves.
  3. I vow to abstain from sexual misconduct.
    Yet child prostitution is very real in Burma today. Talk to people in Thailand about the child prostitutes being sent out of Burma and then going home with AIDS. You know that AIDS is at its worst in northern Thailand, which is where the Burmese prostitutes come to make a little money. Then they go home and spread AIDS. The SLORC, master of poverty in Burma, is responsible.
  4. I vow to abstain from false speech.
    That's not even worth commenting on.
  5. I vow to abstain from intoxicants that cloud the mind and to encourage others not to cloud their minds.
    Burma supplies 50 to 80 percent of the world's heroin. Asians say that they're doing their best to control the drugs, and it's too bad if we're so degenerate that we buy them. True, we have a problem. But they are under a Buddhist obligation to ensure that other people do not cloud their minds. The SLORC involvement in the export of heroin violates that basic precept.
  6. The SLORC and the drug trade

The Burmese government has been in the drug business for 30 years. Opium war lords have acted as decentralized governors in the Shan states on behalf of Rangoon. What they know, what we know, is that all the drug policies of the West have failed miserably. Never have our police in the West managed to seize more than 10 percent of the heroin which is moving across borders. We spend billions on police-led prevention programs which fail. Every big drug bust is just propaganda; it takes five to 10 years to make that bust and the organization which has been destroyed is replaced within 24 hours. We cannot stop the movement of heroin once it has been refined in Burma.

In January the Burmese government did a deal with Kuhn Sa, the heroin export kingpin. They let him surrender to them. He is now honorable, but still in the drug business. He surrendered to get away from the border and now he's working elsewhere. The most powerful man in the SLORC, Khin Nyunt said, "The regime will look after Kuhn Sa on humanitarian grounds for the sake of the national spirit. Kuhn Sa and his army are our own blood brothers."

The U.S. has a law called the Trading with the Enemy Act which was used against Vietnam. They've used it to reasonable effect against Cuba and Cambodia. But they have never used it against Burma even though the SLORC is actually attacking the U.S. [through drugs] on its own streets. Am I to believe that the influence of those who make money out of drugs in the United States is so strong that the American government won't take action? I don't know.

The recent American government action against the SLORC specifically excluded counter narcotics assistance. Helicopters acquired through this program are not used to destroy poppy fields but rather to destroy minorities. All of us - the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia - pretend we're in a drug war when in reality we're willing to let a rogue government export drugs to us without being treated as an enemy.

Constructive engagement?

Let me now come back to this idea of constructive engagement, of persuading the SLORC. We know that anybody who speaks out in Burma is arrested, beaten up, tortured, murdered. Frank speech leads to prison. Ma Thida, a doctor and writer, was arrested in 1993 and sentenced to 23 years of solitary confinement.

The SLORC has just declared that it's working towards multiparty democracy, and they're putting people in prison for meeting with opposition groups, for selling commentary to foreign news organizations, being a journalist, meeting with foreign diplomats. This year they passed a law which bans all acts which seem to disturb public order and sets five- to 20-year prison terms. Criticizing the government is classified as "disturbing public order."

This is how constructive engagement has worked in Burma. After the massacres, we cut off aid. The SLORC lived off drugs, other aid, the ruby market, the teak market, etcetera, which wasn't a very big income. They don't need that much money to fill their bank accounts and buy their weapons. They replaced the part of their income which came from international aid by opening up their markets to our corporate investors. We cut off the money with one hand and we sent it back with the other.

Burma's Thai neighbors played a key role in propping up SLORC through the teak trade. One week, the Thai government declared a moratorium on cutting teak; the next week, they signed agreements to massacre the teak forests in Burma (Thailand's teak resources already having been virtually exhausted.)

The "Dirty Clothes" campaign which Friends of Burma has just started [see page 14] gives another example of the effects of this sort of liberalization. Penny Kitsen, a Sears Canada representative, gave a typical defence of her company's trade with Burma, explaining: "There's the human rights issue, but if we back away, we could be risking the workers' future employment income."

The standard argument here is the workers' right to a 60-hour work week at eight cents an hour. I've seen the factories in which the women and little children work - tin shacks in summer, 40 degrees Celsius inside, no windows, door closed. To go along with that now is to pretend that we hadn't decided that this was illegal, immoral, impossible, unacceptable by the 19th century.

We've heard this kind of argument before. We know that we're dealing with drugs, child prostitution, AIDS, the exploitation of cheap labor and forced labor. We are not dealing with economic and social development.

Time for Canada to take the lead

Canada has been grasping for a way to have a stronger foreign policy in Burma. But the government hasn't found out how to do it and it isn't clear that there is a decision to go all the way.

We say we're a small country with little influence. But we have more influence than we say we do, even in Burma. Our imports are up from $8 million in 1993 to close to $20 million today. But our real influence comes from our role in the world, in dozens and dozens of organizations where we have a reputation, where we have cards to play. We do have influence on the way those organizations, and therefore the world, will treat Burma. To reduce foreign policy to low-level utilitarianism is naive.

That isn't the way it's worked in history. The primary question is: What do we stand for? That's where you begin building policy, particularly in these cases of rogue governments. When a few countries with good reputations take a clear, strong stand, they create an astonishing pole of attraction. Suddenly, everybody else has to be measured against you. Suddenly, a new reality has been created.

In fact, we already have allies; Scandinavia is ready. The Scandinavian states were in a quandary until their honorary consul, James Leander Nichols, was murdered in June by the SLORC. We also know that the U.S. is closer to taking a clear action than it's ever been. A president in his second term might like to take some action. We could have an enormous influence on the U.S. if we took a clear stand on the SLORC as the key source of heroin.

This is what I think we can do. I want Canada to say that the SLORC is not the legitimate government of Burma. This will have a serious impact on everything that the Canadian government has to do with Burma. Suddenly, it will no longer get the respect which is due to governments. We can easily set up mechanisms to cut off investments and to cut off trade.

This will be easier than it was with South Africa, which was a major economy in the West. Burma is not, except for its sale of heroin. Then we can begin pursuing the international institutions where Burma gets money, starting with the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. If we and the Scandinavians take a firm stand in those institutions, we'll block money to Burma.

We have to pursue the SLORC as active participants in heroin exports to the West. We might indict members of the SLORC as drug dealers in our own courts. We could also try the international court, and we could push and embarrass the United States to follow. They might be forced to use the Trading with the Enemy Act and indict the members of the SLORC.

Rogue states fall because they fail

We have to start talking to the Swiss about bank accounts. We have to go to the G-7 group of major industrialized countries, demanding that it come to terms with the SLORC as the source of heroin; and then we have to turn to the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has been pushed by international corporations into normalizing relations with the SLORC. We would argue that the SLORC is not a government by Asian standards and that we consider it to be a criminal activity, that the normalization of ASEAN's relationships with Burma is unacceptable to us.

In globalization everything is interdependent; if we take a strong stand in North America and Europe, it will be very difficult for corporations in the ASEAN countries to deal with Burma without there being some strong down side. How much is Burma worth to ASEAN in pure financial terms if they start losing in terms of their alliances, their friendships, cooperation in the West? If the G-7 says no, they'll say, "How much are we making out of this? Not enough to have the G-7 against us."

Finally, rogue hunters fall because they fail. If you take a tough stand you'll find that there are moderates in the Burmese army who will respond to the need for real change. Not everybody in the Burmese army is like the leadership of the SLORC. There are some decent, mid-level officers who are just trying to have a career and wish that they weren't involved in all this and they will respond to a need for change when the need for change becomes apparent inside Burma. These are the sort of people who would be happy to see a legal government - say, one including Aung San Suu Kyi - in power in Burma.

Some cases need simplicity. You need to be tough and direct. This is one of those cases. That's the only way that we'll be able to unleash the various initiatives that can bring down the SLORC and give us a chance to control the sources of heroin.

The Friends of Burma are based in Ottawa. Call them at 613/237-8056; fax 613/563-0017

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1997

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1997, page 23. Some rights reserved.

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