Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Business as usual in Burma

This week Amnesty International, Saferworld and other NGOs pointed to a breach of the EU arms embargo on Burma (Myanmar) by the Indian government. Their report demands that the EU “stand by its obligations” and urges the Indian government to stop the transfer of a military helicopter to the dictatorship. Roy Isbister of Saferworld said: “The EU embargo states that no military equipment should be supplied, either directly or indirectly for use in Myanmar – what’s the point in having an arms embargo if it is not going to be implemented or enforced?”

New Labour’s Ian McCartney, the former trade and investment minister and Blair himself have claimed to be in favour of the sanctions. At the same time the British government has backed companies trading in Burma to the tune of £22.9m, despite Blair himself having called for the release of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, held by the junta for over 12 years. She is one of over 1,000 political prisoners in the country. The supply of the helicopter makes a mockery of the arms embargo since the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) cannot operate without components made in the EU and US. Ninety percent of its parts originate from five countries in the EU, including its hydraulic package, flotation equipment, fuel tanks and internal gearbox, which is made by GKN Westland. India’s defence ministry admits that the country does give military hardware support to Burma, but claims that “the equipment is not offensive”. This is clearly untrue since the ALH is armed with rocket launchers made by Forges de Zebrugge in Belgium and engine, guns and rockets from France. The official also revealed that Burma was helping in the battle against insurgents in India's northeast.

The Burmese junta is currently waging war on the Karen people and other ethnic groups, as well as engaging in cross-border attacks on tens of thousands who have fled to Thailand. In April the Burmese army and its proxy forces positioned artillery and heavy machine guns overlooking the Mae La refugee camp where 45,000 Burmese citizens had sought shelter. The Karen Human Rights Group which campaigns for the Karen people whose state lies in eastern Burma, has documented the continuing ethnic cleansing policies of the Burmese regime, including forced labour, land confiscation and military campaigns and rape carried out by its armed forces. The junta is building a series of dams on the Salween river, which forms a natural border between Burma and Thailand with the support of the World Bank, ignoring heavy criticism.

The reality is that several countries want to exploit Burma’s rich natural resources to fuel their rapid industrial growth. South Korea’s Daewoo International and India’s state oil and gas companies have major stakes in Burma’s Shwe gas project. Large deposits of natural gas were recently discovered off the coast of Arakan State in western Burma. Natural gas exports have now become Burma’s main source of foreign exchange. China, India and Russia are supplying the Burmese military with artillery, jets, helicopters and other hardware, which are being used to crush internal opposition from the Karen National Union (KNU), which has fought the Burmese government for 60 years, as well as terrorise civilians. The European Union and New Labour provide one of the worst regimes in the world with a figleaf of criticism whilst business goes on as usual.

Corinna Lotz, AWTW secretary

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