Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Burmese Gulag

Attempts by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to bring the military government of Burma to book over its use of forced labour came to a head this week. The ILO finally decided to bring its concerns to the United Nations Security Council after years of denial by the Burmese government. But the ILO’s criticisms are just the tip of the iceberg in a country that has suffered brutal dictatorship since 1962. Human rights organisations, pro-democracy and religious groups are united in condemning not only the use of slave labour but an endless list of horrors. It is illegal to make or join a political party, to voice a political opinion, to speak out against the dictatorship, to have a printing press, own a computer for personal use or discuss human rights. Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s elected leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has lived under house arrest for 11 years. Recently the junta extended her arrest by another year. She won over 80% of the vote in Burma’s last free election 20 years ago. Amnesty International estimates that there are more than 1,300 political prisoners. Attacks on ethnic minority villages are on the increase. Rape is used as a standard weapon by the Burmese army. The dictatorship headed by General Than Shwe wallows in luxury in a land where the lowest proportion of GDP is spent on health of any country in the world. One million live in camps in a country that resembles a vast Gulag. Many are indigenous peoples like the Shan, Kachin, Hmong, Karen, Karenni, Burman and Rakhine.

Burma is a country rich in gems, timber, oil and gas. But all the money is going into the hands of the generals who run the government. Recently one of their daughter’s lavish wedding parties made it on to YouTube, causing a rumpus. The general did not have to worry, though, since access to the Internet is controlled by the government through a US company called Fortinet. The chief props of the regime include the British and French governments. While New Labour pretends otherwise, Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK says that "foreign companies are using British dependent territories to channel new investment to Burma so that Britain is not directly implicated". Under New Labour there has been a surge of British imports from Burma from £17.8m in 1997 to £74m in 2004. The bulk of the imports are clothes on sale in British high streets. A major financial pillar of the regime is the French oil company Total. Others include Daewoo, Texaco, Proctor and Gamble, Black and Decker, Hitachi, Samsung, Caterpillar, Halliburton – and more of the usual suspects. One campaigner, who cannot be named due to fear of reprisals, says: "As a tourist to Burma, you will travel on roads, railways, airport runways, see temples, palaces and gardens, go to international companies and buildings… that if built from 1988, will contain the dead bodies of the people who were forced to make it for you as slave labourers. If you go to Burma as a tourist you will pay at least 50-80% of your money to help pay the State Peace and Development Council (= The Burma military dictatorship) to rape and torture, forcefully relocate to people camps run by the military, human minesweeping and mass murder of the people you go there to see." Aung San Suu Kyi But is prominent amongst those calling for a tourism boycott. A benefit concert in London will take place on February 1 at the Royal College of Music to support the oppressed peoples of Burma.

Corinna Lotz, AWTW secretary

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