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Good Neighbours?

ICC Note: Peoples right to know.

by Sikder Haseeb Khan and Pervez Shams

10/13/07, China (The Daily Star) – September was set to witness the visit of a senior member of Burma’s ruling regime, the State Peace and Development Committee (SPDC), who was scheduled to lead a high-profile delegation, hold official talks with the chief adviser, and attend a state banquet on September 10.

Due to the ongoing political crisis in Burma, the trip was postponed. This was not the first scheduled visit of a Burmese official to Bangladesh. In 2002, during Burma’s Prime Minister General Than Shwe’s visit, both countries pledged to boost bilateral ties to overcome their respective economic challenges. Than Shwe was the first Burmese leader to visit Bangladesh in 16 years.

The Bangladesh-Burma tie has taken a more cozy turn since the discussion began on the Asian Highway Network. Although initially not considering this to be a priority, Burma signed an agreement in July 2007 to establish a direct road link between the two countries.

Ultimately, the road will connect Bangladesh to the Asian Highway network. Under the agreement, Bangladesh will construct 16-mile road including 14 miles inside Burma in the first phase. It will link Guandhum in Cox’s Bazar with Baulibazar.

Although Bangladesh and Burma have conducted both informal and official trade for long, the sudden warming of relations between the two countries leaves one with a feeling of unease. After all, Bangladesh, a country long opposed to the state of Israel for its military occupation of Palestine and to South Africa’s then apartheid regime is hobnobbing with a country with one of the poorest records in human rights abuses and suppression of democracy.

For Bangladeshis, the most visible ramification of Burma’s repression is the continued presence of the thousands of Muslim Rohingya refugees from the Arakan state dispersed along the Cox’s Bazaar coastline, who flee religious persecution at the hands of the Burmese military junta.

The porous borders have also meant that Bangladesh’s forests provide refugee for Arakanese military factions; in addition, the border areas remain a hotbed for the trafficking and trade of weapons and drugs.

Burma’s move to democracy, like Bangladesh, took place in 1990, when the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung Sang Suu Kyi, won democratic elections by an overwhelming margin, capturing more than 80 per cent of the popular vote. The military junta, however, refused to honor the results and subsequently placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and sent other NLD members to prison.

Since 1990, the junta has blatantly denied political freedom to its citizens while repeatedly ignoring international pleas to release Nobel laureate Suu Kyi and other political dissidents. Till today, several protracted armed battles continue between the SPDC and ethnic minority factions.

Many of these conflicts are fought along the country’s borders. Among the most prominent ethnic minorities being prosecuted are the Rohingyas, from the state of Arakan, who have historically lived as refugees on the Cox’s Bazaar frontier and in Thailand.

As part of its effort to shut down democratic politics, the junta relies on measures that are replicated by dictatorships everywhere. It has either arrested or driven NLD’s top leadership underground. Since the sixties, the army has maintained a presence in the main universities, after blowing up the student centre in the University of Rangoon and killing hundreds.

To suppress political movements by students, SPDC kept Rangoon University closed throughout the 1990s. Lengthy imprisonment for political opposition is commonplace. Last year, for example, SPDC sent four young men to nineteen years in jail for publishing “anti-government” poems.

The human rights situation in Burma is one of the worst in the world. Many who are not imprisoned are forced into labour. As early as 1998, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) described forced labour in Burma as “an endemic abuse affecting hundreds of thousands of workers who (are) subjected to the most extreme forms of exploitation.”

Forced labour practices, which involve men, women, and children, include coerced combat, mine-sweeping, construction work, and sexual services, with little or no compensation and virtually no protection. Much of this practice goes hand in hand with Burma’s armed suppression in areas inhabited by ethnic minorities, hundreds of thousands of whom have been uprooted, and are now trying to survive as refugees or as internally displaced peoples (IDPs)

Along with command politics, the Burmese military controls the major economic sectors. The two largest conglomerates in the country, UMEH and MEC, are both owned by current and former military commanders and their families. Most foreign investment, whether in tourism, gems and minerals, or oil and gas, is channeled through these or other state-owned companies.

While the ordinary Burmese languish in economic and political repression, SPDC has spent millions of dollars to move the capital from Rangoon to a new city built from scratch.

Despite SPDC totalitarian control, Burmese students and monks burst out in protests from time to time (as is happening now), demanding a restoration of democracy. SPDC has responded usually by sheer repression. It has been dangling a “roadmap” for a transition to democracy for the last four years, which has yet to bear fruition. SPDC also convened a national convention to amend the constitution, which has continued its staged deliberations for the last fourteen years.

Burma’s political morass has plagued international human rights activists and organisations for decades. Most recently, the retired South African archbishop and Nobel laureate, Desmond Tutu, and former Czech president, Vaclav Havel, called on the United Nations Security Council to take action on Burma.

While international pressure has increased, the Burmese regime counted on support from its close ally, China. Along with Russia, China vetoed a resolution on Burma in January 2007. The regime responded two months later by offering China instead of India the primary access to its lucrative Shwe gas reserves, one of the largest in the world.

Time to end the quagmire

Burma’s friendship with its neighbours, especially China, has been the key to its survival, despite the horrendous political situation in the country. India has also provided support, lured by Burma’s oil and gas. China, in addition, considers Burma its main access to the Indian Ocean, and is reportedly in talks to build a naval base there. China is also SPDC’s main supplier of arms.

In this light, it is easy to see how Bangladesh might fall ploy to the game of realpolitik interests. However, the question remains, how feasible would a strategic alliance with Burma be, and what is the price we are willing to pay?

The highway will ease trade, but like India, Bangladesh’s underlying interest is in Burma’s oil and gas. But our competition here has far deeper pockets; China and India can and will easily outbid us. And given SPDC’s history of making profits, there is every chance that SPDC will prefer building additional pipelines to those two countries. GAIL (Gas Authority of India, Ltd) has already secured additional contracts in Burma.

In sharp contrast, the benefits of avoiding a close alliance with Burma’s repressive regime are several. First, by not allying with Burma, Bangladesh embraces the overwhelming international condemnation of the Burmese junta.

Bangladesh would not be alone in withdrawal of its support; the European Union and the United States are vocal of their disapproval of Burma. Second, it would also have the support of Asean, which has been under tremendous pressure to persuade the Burmese military government to bring in political reforms.

Third, there is little guarantee Bangladesh as a nation can exert additional pressure on Burma for its continuing situation on the Rohingya refugees based on bilateral economic ties, given thus far, its military junta has yielded little to any form of international pressure.

And fourth, we can instead devote resources toward securing better energy deals with the Middle East, a region with which we share closer ties anyway.

Establishing bilateral economic ties with Burma is akin to hankering after vague offers that are out of reach and that very well legitimises a repressive military junta that does not represent the will of its people. Building a highway will help the regional economy, but it will irrefutably condone the use of forced labor from the Burmese side.

While Bangladesh is attempting to restore a democratic form of governance in the country, its neighbour has thus far shown little inclination to do so; an alliance between a repressive regime and a country with a transitional administration is hardly a recipe for consolidating representative democratic governing systems.

Any hope of translating robust economic ties into possibilities of democratic influence through engagement is naïve at best. For now, Burma remains a country with an egregious human rights record, and a shameful military history that has suppressed the democratic will of its people for decades.

Engaging with Burma grants the junta a level of legitimacy that can be called into question, since for most countries, the junta is an illegitimate government ruling by force and fear. Much international censure and demands for turning the tide of oppression has fallen on deaf ears. The deaf ears do not have to be ours.