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Come To Burma!

Human Rights

Come to Burma!
The happy land where the people smile and work for free!
Juli Mahr and Sarah Sutcliffe on Rangoon’s move to lure foreign tourists and investors.

The timing was shrewd, if a little obvious. The junta released Aung San Suu Kyi and simultaneously relaxed investment laws.

In a world where multinationals are forever on the look-out for the most immediate profit, the military junta appears to have pushed the right buttons. The carrots dangled are cheap labour, a wealth of natural resources and an emerging market. And the junta lays claim to an impressive track record – since 1989, SLORC sources say, they have managed to attract 160 foreign-investment projects worth three billion dollars.

Two-thirds of this is accounted for by oil and gas companies, with Texaco (US), Total (France), Premier (UK) and UNOCAL (US) topping the bill of those most eager to do business with one of the most undemocratic regimes in the world. Their role in bolstering the military dictatorship is immeasurable. Moreover, Total and Premier are now considering expanding their involvement in Burma.

The SLORC has also been wooing new investors – especially in the area of tourism and hotel development – with offers of ten-year tax-breaks and full repatriation of profits. Rothmans and Heineken are considering expanding their operations. But PepsiCo have been forced to sell their equity in a $15-million venture which produces 900,000 bottles a day owing to activist and consumer boycott threats in the US. Investment is doubly important for the Burmese regime. It provides money which directly finances a national budget of which 40 per cent is spent on the military. It also appears to lend the regime political legitimacy. An official of the junta recently claimed that the democracy movement was ‘unnecessary’ because the regime was attracting so much foreign investment.

Over half of the investment is coming from the Pacific region – from Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Japan. But 43 per cent comes from the West and Australia in spite of the fact that many Western governments claim not to encourage either trade with or investment in Burma. The British Government, for example, sponsored a trade mission to the country in February of this year. Of the 37 companies who went, 20 also received $1,500 grants to go towards the cost of the trip from the Government’s Department of Trade and Industry. This trade mission came only weeks after 13 National League for Democracy supporters were arrested, as human-rights groups were quick to point out.

Tourist abuses
Meanwhile, the links between investment and human-rights abuses are becoming more direct and alarming. Groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have amply documented serious abuses such as forced labour and forced relocation taking place on a massive scale throughout the country. And there is a telling connection between human-rights violations and the industry the junta is currently most eager to promote – tourism.

Tourism is growing rapidly in Burma. In the year ending March 1995 there were more than 95,600 visitors – compared with under 9,000 in 1992. The junta is promoting 1996 as ‘Visit Myanmar Year’ and is hoping to encourage as many as 500,000 foreigners to holiday in Burma. The military authorities are keen to cash in on the world’s fastest-growing industry, but to prepare for large-scale tourism they have been violating human rights on a massive scale – even by their own standards.

Whole communities have been forcibly relocated from their homes to make way for foreign hotels and to ‘clean up’ areas for the eyes of tourists. These communities are given no choice as to whether to move and where to move to. Neither do they receive compensation.

Thousands of people have been forced to work without pay on tourist sites – restoring the moat around Mandalay Palace, for example. Plans have been put into action to relocate the more ‘picturesque’ ethnic peoples to special villages where they can be visited by tourist groups in what amounts to a human zoo. Model villages for this purpose are under construction near Rangoon and some Padaung people have already been resettled to Inle Lake. There tourists can visit – for a charge – and take photos of ‘long-necked’ Padaung women.

Slave labour is also being used on a large scale to create the infrastructure needed for tourism. There are eyewitness accounts of shackled slaves being made to work on an extension of the Bassein airport. On the infamous Ye-Tavoy railway – started in 1993 – over 200,000 people have been forced to work and around 300 have lost their lives due to the appalling conditions. The railway will enable tourist-access to southern Burma. The Pantanaw-Einme motorway construction, which has also relied heavily on forced labour, has been speeded up especially for the 1996 ‘Year of the Tourist’. According to one man forced to work on the road: ‘If they had stuck to the original schedule it would have been finished in 1997. But they wanted it to be ready in time for tourists... If the tourists knew what we had been through... How much we suffered...’

He added: ‘I think those foreign tourists shouldn’t come because if they come it will look like the SLORC Government is strong... and the military will grow more powerful.’

Indeed General Knin Nyunt, Head of Military Intelligence and one of SLORC’s top brass, is a champion of tourism on the grounds that tourists will ‘witness and realize the reality and the truth and this will replace the criticism of Myanmar abroad’.

Big international hotels, airport developments and shopping centres give the appearance of a thriving, stable country. But tourism is not the only sector being paid for with the suffering of the Burmese people. Oil companies such as UNOCAL and Total are involved in a controversial gas pipeline project which is being driven through territory from which indigenous communities are being forcibly relocated. To escape persecution by the military, refugees are fleeing across the border into Thailand.

No confidence
In spite of the junta’s grand claims of Burma being a hot business prospect investors are more cagey. The junta is suspected of manufacturing exaggerated investment figures to bolster the country’s ‘attractiveness’. It claims a nine-per-cent growth rate which financial analysts who know anything about the country find impossible to believe. Although the Government is keen to have funding from the World Bank and the IMF it does not have the confidence of either body. The most the IMF has been prepared to commit itself to is funding a project for statistical training in Burma.

Faced with a maze of bureaucratic procedures and the junta’s habit of arbitrarily changing the rules, a group of US businesses have recently left the country for good. According to Khin Maung Kyi of the National University of Singapore, ‘uncertainty, unpredictability, restrictions and controls and high transaction costs’ were cited by the US companies as the reasons for leaving. Human rights were not a main reason, but they felt ‘it was not worth staying in a country whose human-rights records were also being questioned’.

The world community might hope that Suu Kyi’s release heralds a change for the better in Burma – but there is as yet little evidence to support this. The junta’s position is unrelenting, and the words of Brigadier General David Abel, Minister for National Planning and Economic Development, speak for themselves. He told journalists recently that he was positive that investors were not hampered by political concerns: ‘Money motivates men, big businessmen. Their motivation is to make money. If they can make money, why not? They are not worried about what politicians say.’

Sarah Sutcliffe and Juli Mahr are freelance writers and researchers who do campaigning work for the Burma Action Group in London, England.

The tale of the $32 shirt

$32 t-shirt. A clean, well-lit shopping mall in Ottawa might seem a curious place to start exploring the story of how Burma’s military rulers are lining their pockets and their arsenals at the expense of South-East Asia’s worst-paid factory workers.

The story hangs on how a $32 shirt made in a trade-union-proof factory half a world away in Rangoon has come to sit on a sales rack in a Sears department store in Canada’s capital. The entire monthly wage of a female piece-rate-paid worker in Burma equals roughly what it will cost some Ottawa shopper to buy this one product of her handiwork.

Although Thailand is still the region’s largest clothing exporter, rising costs there are making Burma increasingly attractive to the international rag-trade. Labour in Rangoon is available at one-tenth the price of that in Bangkok.

International cargo records show that in September and October of 1994 alone, nearly ten tonnes of shirts from Burma were cleared through the port of Vancouver by the Canadian import-export company Spirito. Inexpensive men’s shirts produced in low-wage Asian countries are its bread-and-butter. It markets them under the brand-name of Protocol: clothing ‘Suited to Your State of Affairs’.

Thanks to mandatory country-of-registration labelling of all garments imported into Canada it has been possible to trace precisely where the $32-dollar Protocol shirt came from: a factory co-owned by SLORC and South Korea’s largest industrial conglomerate, the Daewoo Group.

Before she got her job the woman who made this shirt most likely had to pay the Burmese Government a fee to be put on the list of the company’s potential employees. The authorities like to control who is recruited to work in foreign-owned companies.
Back to the shirt. When it left Rangoon its declared value was two dollars. By the time it got to Vancouver it was worth five. After customs clearance and packaging it was worth ten. The wholesaler added his bit, as did Sears Canada – pushing the final price up to $32.19 including tax. All this from a shirt that earned the factory worker who made it mere pennies.

To make matters worse, the Daewoo factory in Rangoon where this shirt was produced has been the scene of considerable unrest recently. In 1995 factory-floor workers learned that managers were to be paid end-of-year production bonuses but they, the workers, were not. After they staged a sudden sitdown strike, Daewoo called in its corporate partner – the SLORC regime’s light-industry ministry. This body quickly dispatched a paramilitary unit that threatened to shoot any garment workers who didn’t go back to work immediately.

Companies that involve themselves in Burma’s burgeoning garment-export trade are inevitably contributing to this kind of abuse – and to the military’s weapons-purchasing power. But the good news is that some are being forced to pull out due to consumer protest.

Take Columbia Sportswear of Oregon. Until recently this upmarket US ski-wear designer utilized a factory in Burma owned partly by the junta’s main investment arm – the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH). The pact between the two companies meant that 16 cents of every dollar’s profit on ski-wear exports to the US and Canada was being funnelled into the Burmese army’s weapons-procurement program. Columbia refused to cut this link – until confronted with the threat of an America-wide consumer and retailer boycott of its $300-million-a-year trade in outdoor and recreational clothing, Burma-sourced or not. The message is getting through to consumers: every garment made in Burma and sold abroad helps buy bullets or worse. And to manufacturers: get out of Burma or we will stop buying your products.

Dave Todd is the former chief foreign-affairs correspondent for the Southam newspaper chain in Canada. He is now the special project co-ordinator for Canadian Friends of Burma.

[image, unknown] Issue 280 Contents

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 280 magazine cover This article is from the June 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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