Burma (Myanmar) is cash-strapped and increasingly vulnerable to surreptitious colonization by China - under the very noses of the bumbling 'leaders' in the West. This slow-motion occupation of Burma is getting much less attention or reaction than, say, Saddam's sudden and dramatic invasion of Kuwait. And sadly, Burma’s democratically elected leader (Aung San Suu Kyi) still languishes locked up and silenced while Bush, Howard, and the world community shamelessly continue to look away. (More about Howard later in this article).
* A quick way to keep up with the latest events in Burma (Myanmar) is to watch this annotated and frequently updated slideshow of events at irrawaddy.org
* Play your part. Link arms with the brave Burmese protesters by signing this PETITION (opens in a new window) on behalf of www.avaaz.org.
Aung San Suu Kyi, known in Burma as “The Lady”, is the Nelson Mandela of South-East Asia, having spent years in prison after winning the Burmese election by an 80% landslide in 1990. In this photo, she was addressing a crowd after a brief conditional release in 2003. The Burmese military soon sent some rent-a-thugs to cause a disruption and Suu Kyi was re-arrested for “creating a public disturbance”. She had been set up, of course, and has been returned to house-arrest ever since.China’s takeover of Tibet was more dramatic, but its steady ‘behind-the-scenes’ infiltration into Burma is every bit as effective. Tibet’s Dalai Lama, by contrast, is free to travel and campaign, even if his people are not. And the UN and USA keep themselves safely out of the Burmese boxing-ring by lamely imposing Sanctions, which are little more than a means of ‘treading water’ (in international diplomatic terms).
Economic weapons like sanctions don’t hurt the Burmese government, but they do hurt the already-oppressed Burmese people. Burma's military (the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC, formerly SLORC) can get almost all of its sustenance and weapons from its northern neighbour China, so sanctions by the West are only toothless symbolic threats. They merely push Burma to seek refuge in China's arms. Western leaders like Bush and Howard surely must know that perfectly well, or they are even more stupid than I thought. But as long as their actions appear to be aggressive (or at least pro-active) on the TV News, that’s all that matters to them. What do Howard or Bush care if the Burmese population goes hungry, or suffers 34 times the rate of the West's incidence of Tuberculosis?
It rapidly became obvious to us, particularly as we traveled up to Burma’s north in 2001, that Chinese influence was very powerful, and also that local Burmese resentment of the Chinese was palpable. Around Mandalay, there was by then a ‘double economy’ in which wealthy Chinese settlers were buying up the best houses and erecting garish chrome fences around them. Locals couldn’t compete in buying foodstuffs either – the price of cooking oil, we were passionately told, had doubled because the recently-settled Chinese could afford to pay higher prices. Anyone who has visited the real Burma will confirm that cooking oil matters a great deal to locals.
It takes a brave individual to confront the SPDC's ban on demonstrations. Many have again been arrested in recent times. We salute them, because arrest may well mean years in Rangoon’s notorious Insein prison. In the prison at Mandalay, each inmate is allotted a concrete slot measuring only 5'6" x 18". Try to imagine what it's like to lie down in that space on a cold night. Prisoners are routinely shunted off for landmine-clearing 'duties' - unless relatives pay extra. Additional food also comes at a price. Ditto a blanket.
The SPDC can buy the support of thugs and spies because there are few other sources of paid employment in Burma. The military keeps it that way. Locals live in constant fear of being denounced as troublemakers – even Buddhist monks can turn out to be government spies in disguise. Prisoners were used as the trouble-making thugs during Aung San Suu Kyi's release. They were released, armed by the military, fed drugs, and sent off as stirrers to the Democracy rally. Afterwards, when their mission was completed and Aung San Suu Kyi had been re-arrested, they were quietly 'disappeared'. It's a junta technique called "flying under the media radar to kill 2 birds with 1 stone".Beijing is keen to colonize Burma because south-western China’s economy is lagging behind the astronomic growth in the rest of the country, therefore could benefit by investment in the North-eastern region around Mandalay. And indeed, the new airport at Mandalay is extraordinarily large …and as yet almost entirely empty and eerily echoic. Our local flight was the only one on the board while we were there. Hey, nobody builds enormous international-standard airport terminals unless they intend to actually use them. Passengers? Burmese can’t afford cooking oil, let alone air-fares. Cargo? It would have to be coming from China as the Burmese have precious little to offer by way of out-going trade except for drugs, gemstones ...and teak timber. The airport had apparently been built jointly by a Chinese-Italian(!) business consortium.
Yeah... I asked that, too.
Outside Mandalay, we watched goggle-eyed through our bus windows as we observed forced-labour gangs working under armed guard, manually breaking and laying stones as road-base. Pulling out my camera might have ensured its immediate confiscation and our ignominious ejection from the country. By far the best roads in the city led to that airport, but carried precious little traffic except an occasional horse-cart and pedal tri-shaw loaded with veggies for market. Later, further south at Kyaikto Pagoda, where the Buddhist Stupa sits on top of the famous golden boulder, we watched a pair of soldiers (in uniform) carting off the temple donation box. I snuk a photo but later accidentally dropped and smashed the camera: dang, it would have been a scoop.
China also seeks to colonize Burma because Burma is a convenient economic and military window onto the Indian Ocean (and, of course, the Arabian Gulf). Railroad and oil pipeline projects are currently being jointly considered by Beijing and Rangoon.
China’s premier Wen Jiabao (left) rolls out the VIP treatment for Burma’s previous leader General Khin Nyunt.An oil pipeline is planned to connect Kunming (capital of China’s south-western Yunnan province) and the small town of Sittwe (on the Burmese coast). This would cut 1200 km from the present sea route between the Persian Gulf and China’s Guandong province, via the Straits of Malacca. That's what I call motivation. More than 60% of China’s oil currently travels this route. Read more in the online version of The Irrawaddy Magazine, particularly in articles by Aung Zaw here and here.
The secondhand Chinese tanks acquired by Burma don’t just get moth-balled or rolled out for show-off parades, they get used. Against the country's own citizens.In Australia, little John Ducklips Howard’s weak response to the SPDC genocide, particularly to the atrocities in Burma's north-eastern Shan State, is entirely politically self-interested and devoid of any human compassion. Howard photocopied his non-ideas directly from the GWBush ‘Manual of Democracy’ (the chapter entitled “Fight-for-Democracy-Only-When-It-Serves-Your-Own-Personal-Political-Interests”). The Bush-Howard Freedom-Imposition Team continues to drag its heels on the tragic subject of Burma, mainly because insufficient oil or gas has yet been discovered there. Howard should at least make more of a fuss about Burma on the world stage ...but that would merely point up his own ridiculous policy contradictions on Iraq and Afghanistan - so both he and his toad-faced turncoat AlexanDUH Downer remain deafeningly silent.
Also, Howard has been so abrasive and unfriendly at ASEAN that he hasn’t even been invited to sign ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Well, that’s understandable, given Howard’s threat to pre-emptively invade Indonesia in pursuit of Terrorists and (presumably) to impose Freedom while he’s at it. Gosh, how would Australia have reacted if Indonesia threatened to invade Queensland? With Deputy Sheriff Johnny Howard pulling guns like that, why would any country in Asia imagine that it is safe from an aggressive United States of Australia?
But as things stand, Australia is entirely disinterested in Burma, which to Howard merely represents a minor foreign policy nuisance in his re-election campaign. So the corrupt Burmese SPDC can take comfort, and confidently continue their divide-and-rule militocracy, complete with torture, mass murder, and systematic mass rape of Shan women. Rape is being used in Burma as a weapon of war against its own citizens, who, like refugees within their own country, are subjected to constant forced migration, violent ethnic cleansing and burning of villages. More Burmese citizens were murdered in the 1988 crackdown than at Tiannamen Square in the following year. However, Australia under Howard, along with most members of ASEAN, will continue to do nothing. ASEAN and the UN have failed the poorer people in Burma miserably.
...........................ASEAN’s Unchanged Melody.
..... Howard knows the tune, but won’t even open his mouth to sing.
But you could help to shame Howard by signing this online PETITION (avaaz.com) in support of the Burmese.
ASEAN should distribute these eco-friendly FunkyPix2 BU--SH-- bags to its delegates:
We now present a shining example of Australian Bullshit so you can put your new bag to use. It's a brief extract from a slimy evasive 2004 interview with John Howard on the topic of Burma. Witness yet another occasion where the interviewer displays higher moral integrity than the prime minister:
TONY JONES: Is it time to start taking a tougher stand against the Burmese military dictatorship?…
JOHN HOWARD: Well, we've made it very plain in the past that we would like to see a more democratic approach in that country. I'm not going to just give a knee-jerk reaction about tougher action, as you call it, against the regime without understanding a little more of the circumstances of that decision. Plainly, our position is one of sympathy for her position and a desire to see a more open democratic approach being adopted in that country.
TONY JONES: I guess we've seen, obviously, in Iraq, where the United States and Australia and other members of the coalition of the willing thought it was necessary to intervene in a country to create a democracy. Why isn't that principle also - or why doesn't that principle also apply equally to Burma?
JOHN HOWARD: Well, Tony, I think nobody is arguing - and I'm certainly not, and I don't recall President Bush or Tony Blair arguing - that every time you are displeased about what's happening in another country, you take it upon yourself to intervene. That's certainly never been the doctrine of any Australian government that I've known, and it's certainly not the doctrine of my Government.
There were particular circumstances in Iraq that have been debated over and over and again. I think what we must do in relation to Burma is to continue to argue in the fashion that we have, continue to put our case in the way that Mr Downer has very strongly - there's no argument as to where the Australian Government stands - and continue to put the arguments in a diplomatic and strong way.
TONY JONES: In the case of Burma, though, we've had a policy of constructive engagement. We even take Burmese officials aside and try to train them in the ideals of democracy. It doesn't seem to be working, does it?
JOHN HOWARD: Well, Tony, one thing I've learnt, both in politics and also to the extent that politics has taken me into areas of international relations, is that you have to be patient…..
(full interview here)
While you're in the mood for smarmy weaklings ducking, weaving, and hiding dirt under diplomatic carpets, listen to the first part of or the first part of this interview with Australia's foreign minister AlexanDUH Downer.And now, after Sydney’s fashion-crime APEC farce, Howard, unbelievably, is selling uranium to Russia, a country which is negotiating to build nuclear reactors in Burma. Now there's another country peering proprietorially at Burma. When will the Australian public come out of its Coalition-induced coma?
Ah, but I digress...
Meanwhile, back at the farm in Burma, opium/heroin production in the region is falling, as the UN is only too eager to point out... and to try to claim some bogus credit. Much of the world's opium used to come from Burma, which, along with Laos and northern Thailand, constituted the Golden Triangle. Farmers who have been encouraged to try alternative crops like corn have found that their profits are eaten away by rats, and many are returning to ad hoc poppy production. Even so, there's now even a massive Opium Theme Park to propagandize to tourists that opium is really a thing of the past in Thailand....
It was normal practice in the East that old and sick people in pain smoked opium as a self-administered palliative measure. Sensible thinking, unlike today. In 19th century Europe and Australia, opium was commonly sold in small bottles and consumed medicinally and recreationally under the name Laudanum. Even Queen Victoria was addicted.
...but the awful truth is that opium production in Burma has fallen only because Afghanistan's heroin has mysteriously become cheaper under the guiding hand of Hamid Karzai and his CIA-funded administration. War, after all, is all about profit.
Heroin trade routes have also changed, increasingly bypassing the Golden Triangle in favour of Tajikistan and other compliant countries. The West earns BIG bucks via heroin supply for millions of addicts, and isn't going to relinquish the profits anytime soon into the hands of what they regard as a disposable Burmese sham-government. The West makes a big show of morally opposing the opium trade in Burma, while surreptitiously stealing their business by undercutting the price in Afghanistan. Ain't Capitalism grand?
In fact, the USA recently helped to make the Afghan heroin trade route more convenient by contributing funds to a new road bridge linking Afghanistan with Tajikistan to the north (away from the Golden Triangle region), viz:
So the sneaky West has deprived Burma's opium industry of the trade routes and financial oxygen it needs. It's a win-win deal for the West: [a] it saves money by not having to take any direct action in Burma nor send in the UN clowns, and [b] it profits by creating a virtual heroin monopoly in the region. UN attempts to claim a moral victory ring sadly hollow to those who are aware of the counterbalancing Afghan connection.
The Burmese military isn't blind - it also recognizes that they can no longer compete against Afghani opium, so are making a big media show of attempts to stamp out residual growers among hilltribes in the north of Burma. Piles of old poppies get regularly burned whenever CNN cameras appear. Delving below the top layer, however, apparently sometimes reveals buds which have been scored and the sap already extracted.
So if the SPDC reduced its opium output, how did it then expect to earn enough foreign exchange? The immediate substitute for opium was to manufacture amphetamine class drugs instead. Amphetamines are simpler to produce, and can be done in small secret chemical laboratories concealed in deep jungle… much easier to conceal than vast open areas full of poppies. That’s why tourists like us were rigorously barred from certain remoter parts of Burma.
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But these days, by 2007, the procurement of the necessary meth-ice chemicals is proving more difficult for the Burmese SPDC, even though they are operating hand-in-glove with the Chinese. The SPDC has eroded the wealth of the country to the point-of-no-return where failed-state comparisons with Zimbabwe are being widely made. Burma was once known as Asia's rice-bowl. People are now beginning to hoard food, just in case ...and Chinese merchants are getting richer as prices balloon.
So the question now becomes: "How can the SPDC survive on this reduced income?"or (more likely): "What does the SPDC do next to replace the drugs industry?" It's a pertinent question because financial pressure is the direct cause of the regime's removal of subsidies on petrol and the consequent 500% rise in price, triggering the current unrest. A financially weakened regime also renders Burma more vulnerable to outside predators. So what is the next way forward for the cash-hungry SPDC?
The new way forward turns out to be an old way. Burma's military has a vice-like grip on the country's profitable gemstone mines around Mogok - the exquisite Burmese rubies. Afghanistan can't compete quite so well on that score, even though there is an extensive semi-precious stone industry in the region near the Afghan-Pakistan border. And, importantly, Burma also controls logging of its teak timber.
Burma's control of logging dates back to halcyon pre-Thaksin days when it did clandestine deals with the Thai military. The deal was that the Thais could cross the border into Burma and clear-fell forests in designated 'insurgent' areas under the thin pretexts of 'security', and if they happened to find any nice old growth teak trees, the Burmese would turn a blind eye. Teak is a profitable commodity in Thailand, and the bulldozers are fuelled by grass and leaves, not diesel:The benefit to Burma was that it simplified the flushing out the Shan, Karen, or Mon "rebels" who were now deprived of jungle camouflage. In 2001, as we bussed towards Moulmein, in the southern Mon State near the Thai border, we could see mile after mile of neatly planted new saplings, all in dead-straight rows: thin, tall, with spindly branches sprouting more than 15 feet from the ground. Probably quite transparent to aerial cameras. And the SPDC, ironically, was claiming green credit for its re-aforestation program...
With the re-emergence of these more 'legitimate' industries, the Burmese SPDC will doubtlessly want to retain the profits for themselves, as before. They'll certainly use their own military infrastructure to do it, as well as their normal practice of forced "press-gang" labour. So I expect that very little of the resulting income will get into the hands of the broader Burmese population. Resentment is growing among Burmese, and the military's position is increasingly untenable, both morally and financially:
The waiting game between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military is nearing another crisis point like the 1988 Uprising. The military has probably been hoping she’ll die sooner than later and has therefore been limiting medical access to her while under confined house arrest. But pressures on the military are also building, such as the potential threat by Burmese Buddhist monks to withhold their daily alms round from military personnel. "Turning Over the Alms Bowl" is the Secret Weapon, the Buddhist equivalent to Excommunication. Interestingly, it was used as a pivotal tactic in 1948 when Burma finally grasped independence from Britain.
With the alms boycott now happening, the consequent denial of Karmic Merit will be particularly humiliating to the military, whether or not they are genuine Buddhists. The monks also know - and fear - that the military might not hesitate to use any means possible to strike back. Tricky balancing act. But this time the world is watching, whereas in 1988 the technology wasn't there.
Gee whiz, Burma is an amazing country. This is the gigantic unfinished base(yes, only the base!) of what was planned in 1790 to be the tallest-ever Buddhist stupa, now lying in ruins at Mingun (near Mandalay). It was split by an earthquake in 1838. Let’s hope it doesn’t become a metaphor for Burma itself after liberation – as will happen sooner or later. I'm thinking sooner.
Then the questions become “What next?” and “How do you stop profiteering vultures from outside Burma from stealing the country all over again?” I already get the sense that wicked plottings are afoot. East Timor, for one, is not setting a good precedent. And the massive capitalist influx and corruption in the USSR following the fall of the Berlin Wall should ring historical alarm bells. Aggressively neo-colonial and corporate-whore globalist countries like the USA, England and Australia are more likely to be a part of the problem than of the solution. So even now, despite everything else presently occupying their attention, the Burmese people might consider preparing a post-apocalyptic Plan B.
Have a keyhole peek at Burma’s secret new capital-in-the-jungle Nay Pyi Taw in this annotated photo album. They built it only a few years ago as a fortress to protect themselves against agression from ‘enemies’. McDonalds franchises? Burmese citizens with sticks? Nuclear-armed monks? No mobile phones are allowed. Their propaganda newsletter is New Light of Myanmar. It makes Goebbels look amateurish.
FunkyPix2 is an official sponsor of Freedom in Burma. Democracy and Freedom are not necessarily synonymous, as is the case in Australia and the USA. I'm rapidly losing faith in Democracy as a system, given the unsavoury actions of the world's leading democratic beacons. How can 80% of Americans want to get out of Iraq but their elected representatives ignore their opinions? Makes about as much sense as the voicelessness in Burma. May the coming New Burma understand and learn from our mistakes. IN PARTICULAR, BE VERY WARY OF A DOOR-TO-DOOR SNAKE-OIL SALESMAN CALLED GEORGE W. BUSH. His message contains all the words that Burmese people yearn for, like "FREEDOM", but his product is toxic and destructive. Don't listen to him - listen to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Read Who’ll clean up the mess? (from irrawaddy.org). Why not donate $5 to them while you're there?