issue 250 - December 1993
Bad business in Burma
Oil companies prop up dictatorship
Burma has one of the worst human rights records in the world. Yet the military dictatorship of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) receives massive foreign funding – largely from multinational corporations, with oil companies in the van.
Oil companies based in the US, Canada, UK, Japan and Australia have invested over $400 million in Burma since 1989. Three companies – Texaco, Amoco and Total – have major long-term plans as the world-wide search for oil and gas intensifies. The oil companies have also built roads and support services which can be used by the regime to suppress opposition.
In 1988 the Burmese regime was on the verge of bankruptcy. Since 1990 it has spent more than $1 billion on arms, mostly from China. The Indian government fears that China may be making use of Burma to gain access to ports in the Andaman Sea. China provides about a quarter of all official Burmese imports. But China’s public attitude remains ambiguous. Despite the fact that China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and therefore has a veto, a General Assembly resolution earlier this year condemning Burma’s human rights record was carried unanimously.
The death toll in the country has now reached more than one million, according to some reports. The forced labour camps match Pol Pot’s reign of terror in Cambodia. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the pro-democracy movement that was denied office after winning elections three years ago, remains under house arrest. International reaction to the ongoing suppression of human rights has so far been conditioned by the ethics of international business, which ‘must go on’. Flush with income from oil, the SLORC regime digs itself in deeper.
For more information contact Burma Action Group, 84, Long Lane, London SE1 4AU, or Multinational Monitor (October 1992 edition), PO Box 19405, Washington, DC 20036, USA.
Island of outcasts
Fearful conditions persist on Leros
It is now four years since conditions on the Greek island of Leros were exposed in the London Observer. Hundreds of mentally ill and disabled men, women and children had, to all intents and purposes, been abandoned on what has become known as the ‘Island of Outcasts’.
I was a member of a team that visited Leros just after an EC inspection in 1991. We saw evidence of the duplicity of the Greek authorities and the brutality of the regime. People were still tied to beds by leather straps, and there were injuries from beatings. Medical and nursing care were rudimentary.
Despite this some Greek doctors made efforts to show what might be achieved by good practice. In particular they were attempting to establish a horticultural project and open a hostel for rehabilitation just outside the asylum grounds. These projects were praised by the EC team that visited in November 1992. But the rest of their report contrasted sharply with the propaganda film made by the Health Ministry to convince the rest of Europe that all was well.
Six months on, the project doctors resigned from their EC-funded posts. In a dramatic faxed plea to a London-based mental-health organization they said they could no longer continue in the face of government subversion and political patronage. Hundreds of millions of drachma in EC funding had, they said, gone down the drain.
They cited 27 people who had been moved from the asylum into three flats and a hostel in the community under the care of nurses specially trained under the EC program. The Board of the hospital replaced three of the nurses with people of their own choosing who had no training in or commitment to the ethos of care in the community.
Conditions on Leros are not an intractable problem. But there is a deep malaise among Greek authorities and at the EC. The problem is not just a question for Greece, or about the practice of institutional care, but concerns the exclusion from society of citizens of a member state of the EC and what the rights of citizenship are.
VOWing in the villages
Jinendra Kumar Jain, an Indian MP, is spreading health messages to distant villages with no electricity by sending out VOWs, or videos on wheels. He sends vans equipped with video recorders, TV sets and large screens into villages. Interspersed with films and advertisements, the videos project messages about sanitation, water and basic hygiene. Jain admitted that ads helped to pay for the VOWs, but he won’t accept any from the tobacco companies. Not surprisingly then, ‘the tobacco companies have started their own VOWS, carrying their own messages, undercutting our fees for other ads and threatening to throw us out of business,’ says Jain.
from Consumer Currents, No 156.
Mahogany logging lumbers on
Mahogany is known as ‘the enchanted tree’ to many indigenous peoples of the Brazilian Amazon and as ‘green gold’ to the logging industry. Despite international protests, ‘green gold’ is still winning out over enchantment.
An injunction granted by the Federal Court requiring the logging companies Perachi, Maginco and Impar to leave the indigenous reserves in southern Pará state has been suspended. Loggers were joined in their lobbying against the injunction by gold miners who are also operating illegally in the area.
Frustrated by the inaction and corruption of government agencies, some tribes have taken direct action. The Parakaná tribe recently destroyed all logging installations and equipment within the Apyterewa reserve. Three other law suits have been filed by the Nucleus for Indigenous Rights (NDI) against loggers operating in the Xikrim do Catete reserve in Pará and the Nambiquara reserve in Mato Grosso.
Resistance to the loggers remains a dangerous business. In April, Paulo Cesar Vinha, a biologist and environmental activist in Espirito Santo, was assassinated. He had been attempting to stop the Aracruz Celulose company from logging the forest and replacing it with eucalyptus plantations. In May, Arnaldo Delcidio Ferreira, leader of the Rural Workers Union of Eldorado, was finally murdered after surviving three previous attempts on his life.
More than half Brazil’s mahogany exports go to the UK. In July environmental activists removed mahogany goods from a store in Norwich, UK, and handed them in to a local police station saying they had reason to believe they were stolen goods. The next largest importer is the US. Environmentalists in both countries are supporting a call from the Coalition Against Predatory Logging in the Amazon for an immediate end to mahogany extraction. The coalition includes more than 80 Brazilian groups.
For more information contact Earth Action Resource Centre, Box E, 111 Magdalen Road, Oxford OX4 1RQ, UK.
JASPER YOUNG / PANOS
Two years after the establishment of a Kurdish ‘safe haven’ in northern Iraq, an independent report commissioned by Save the Children shows that the future of the Kurds remains threatened as international commitment fades. Around 200,000 Kurdish people are still displaced. International protection is precarious and dependent on six-monthly approval from the Turkish government. Iraqi incursions by troops and undercover agents continue to terrify the population. A double blockade – an embargo on the Kurdish areas imposed by Iraq and UN sanctions on the whole of Iraq – prevents essential goods reaching the region. The danger remains that the economic deprivation will cause the collapse of the elected Kurdish administration and propel the Kurds into the hands of Saddam Hussein from a position of extreme weakness.
from Save the Children press release
Ordeal by exile
Tibetans refuse to lose hope
SEAN SPRAGUE / PANOS
A bumpy five-hour bus ride from Dharamsala, northern India, is a school for adult refugees in the small Tibetan settlement of Bir. Red-robed monks from the four monasteries in the area sweep down the street on Yamaha motorbikes to sip tea with local people. Many of the Tibetans living here are second or third generation Indian-born. But all the students at the school have arrived in the past six years.
Tashi is 21 years old and decided to come to India after hearing about the school - when he was living in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa. He had agreed with Chinese officials to stay there for four years to be educated before returning to his village to teach. Prevented by the Chinese from learning about their language, culture and history, Tashi and his family had come to believe they were not Tibetan but Chinese.
After some time in Lhasa Tashi began to discover what the Chinese had done. He decided to head for India and an education. He had his money taken from him by border guards on arrival in Nepal, but he was able to beg enough to get him to Delhi and thence to Dharamsala. Three years on he has still received no reply to 20 letters sent to his parents in Tibet. Correspondence with friends in Lhasa leads him to suspect his family has been told of his ‘disloyalty to the motherland’ – China. He doubts whether they will ever learn the truth.
Phuntsok is now a healthy 17-year-old boy, but during his escape into Nepal when he was just 13 he came close to death from severe malnutrition and frostbite. He was found by a couple of tourists who took him to a hospital where the toes on both his feet were amputated. The tourists gave him money for the journey to Dharamsala. Now he is a keen games player, particularly of football.
Dorjee was involved in one of the many uprisings that occurred in Tibet in the late 1980s. During a demonstration Chinese police opened fire and Dorjee was hit in the shin. The bone was badly broken. Chinese doctors refused to treat him. Fleeing to India, Dorjee went again to hospital but the bone had set badly, requiring a costly operation – which he cannot afford – to put it right. The bone can still be seen protruding from his leg.
Most of the students at the school have undergone similar experiences. On the Tibetan-Nepalese border, guards take advantage of the refugees’ illegal status to take money and personal belongings. Men are often beaten, women – including nuns – raped. Sometimes refugees are shot, or apprehended and handed over to the Chinese authorities.
‘We don’t hate the Chinese people. It is the government and their ideas that we hate,’ said one of the students. Despite the ordeals that so many of them had to endure, they remain cheerful and optimistic. But the freedom of their country is always at the forefront of their minds. They bid farewell with a sincere ‘See you in Free Tibet!’
Fight to the finish?
Just over a year after the UN-monitored multi-party elections in Angola the dream of peace amd democracy for the Angolan people has been bloodied. The losing party – Jonas Savimbi’s Unita – has launched all-out war in order to overturn the results of the ballot box.
Over 100,000 people have died and three million have been displaced. UN estimates put casualties at 1,000 per day making this the worst war in the world today. Until recently the war has been largely forgotten by Western media and politicians, though the UN Security Council has slapped sanctions on arms and fuel supplies to the Unita rebels. Whether they will bite is another matter.
The West which backed Savimbi for years as an anticommunist African democrat has little leverage over him: he controls Angola’s diamond deposits which could finance him indefinitely. Backed by oil revenues of $3 billion a year, the government looks prepared to fight to the finish.
Contact: The Angola Emergency Campaign, c/o Anti-Apartheid Movement, 13 Mandela St., London NW1 0DW
What could be the world’s largest prize – a cool $30 million – has been won by Whirlpool, a company based in Michigan. A group of power companies offered the prize to the first company to build a prototype refrigerator that would use 25 per cent less electricity and no CFCs.
Whirlpool is not saying much about the design of its novel fridge, but its features include better insulation and a computer that controls defrosting.
The prize is to be collected piecemeal, though – about $10 for each fridge sold once it reaches the market next year.
from New Scientist, No 1881.
‘Religion is outraged when an outrage is perpetrated in its name.’
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7