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Map of Burma
1.09.04
Politics and Economy:
Global Business vs. Global Justice
More on This Story:
Burma Past and Present

As NOW reports in "Global Business vs. Global Justice," the Union Oil Company of California or UNOCAL, has been charged since September 1996 with knowingly using forced labor to construct a natural gas pipeline across the Tenasserin region of Burma — a country known to some as Myanmar. Unocal provides a Web site to explain more about the so-called Yadana Project in Myanmar which, according to the company's site, "has brought significant benefits in health care, education, and economic opportunity to more than 45,000 people living in the pipeline area."

According to FAULTLINE, the Californian environmental magazine, the pipeline project is "one of the single largest sources of revenue to the military junta, which has been accused in pending US lawsuits of forced labor, rape and torture." And Heidi Quante of the Burma Project — established by the Open Society Institute and dedicated to increasing international awareness of conditions in Burma — says "Unocal is seen as one of the companies that's propping up the military."

In defense, Unocal Public Relations Manager Barry Lane explains, "Our investment there provides one of the few open windows to the US to the government of Myanmar. It wouldn't be beneficial whatsoever to shut down one of Myanmar's last windows to the West."

To understand more about the story, it is helpful to know about Burma's past. A brief history is provided below.

Brief History of Burma

Located in Southeast Asia, Burma borders Thailand, Laos, China, India, Bangladesh, and the Andaman Sea. The country is roughly the size of Texas. No current census figures are available, but most observers estimate total population around 50 million people, comprised of eight major ethnic groups. When Burmese language origins are traced back, evidence indicates that the Burman people originated in the north in the Himalayas.

The Burman Empire had been a monarchy from the 11th century until the regions was conquered by Britain in the late 19th century and ruled as part of India.

In 1948, the Union of Burma, crafted largely by the efforts of General Aung San, achieved independence. To this day, Aung San is a national hero, whose image is seen plastered on walls all over Burma. He was described as Dr. Ba Maw, a subsequent political leader of Burma:

Aung San had common sense, more of it than any of the others. He was erratic and intolerant and hard to get along with, but he saw things as they really were, divorced himself from all this ideological nonsense, and rolled up his sleeves and got to work.
At that time, Burma became a parliamentary democracy, but sadly, its engineer Aung San was assassinated just before the hand-over.

In the new democracy, there was some ethnic strife as minorities struggled to gain independence from the Burman majority, but the unrest was minimal compared to that which would follow. In 1962, a coup brought a military-dominated regime into power, led by the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP). Under the BSPP, there were no longer free elections, and freedom of expression and association were curtailed. In addition, student and worker protests in the 1960s and '70s were met with military force and human rights abuses became a common occurrence.

On August 8, 1988, a nationwide protest demanded that the BSPP regime be replaced by an elected civilian government. Reports allege that soldiers fired into crowds of unarmed protesters, killing thousands. In September, the army announced a coup by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) (renamed the State Peace and Development Council in 1997.)

Burma was renamed Myanmar (from the Burmese word for the martial attributes of "strong" and "fast") by the country's ruling military regime in 1989. It is worth noting that the democracy movement within the country, the European Union, the United States, and most major media outlets officially continue to use Burma as a symbolic protest against the military regime.

SLORC declared that elections would be held when "peace and tranquility" were restored, but before the scheduled date, the leader of the most popular opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) — a woman by the name of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of General Aung San — was placed under house arrest, and many of the other senior NLD officials were placed in jail.

The free vote did take place in 1990, but when results came in showing that the NLD had won over 80% of the parliamentary seats, the junta changed the rules of the election, and many elected representatives were arrested.

In July 1995, after six years of house arrest during which she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Aung San Suu Kyi was released. However, in 2001, she was again placed under de facto house arrest for maintaining her unbending political opposition. She was released in May 2002, and continues to speak out against the dictatorship. (Visit the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Web pages.)

Throughout the junta's rule, there have been allegations of myriad human rights violations. Reports by Amnesty International, the UN, Human Rights Watch, and many other groups have repeatedly described murder, torture, rape, detention without trial, and massive forced labor of villagers as military porters in combat zones. A more detailed account of these charges appears in the Human Rights Watch World Report 2003: Burma.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order under the Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Act that certified that the Goverment of Burma had committed large-scale repression of democratic opposition, thereby prohibiting new U.S. investment in Burma. In addition, the President declared a national emergency to deal with the threat posed to the national security and foreign policy of the United States by the actions and policies of the Government of Burma.

In May 2003, President George W. Bush extended the national emergency with respect to Burma for one year.



Resources

Human Rights Watch: Burma
Human Rights Watch, the largest human rights organization based in the United States, has collected their press releases, commentaries, testimonies, background briefings, and more on Burma on their Web site.

CIA World Factbook: Burma
The CIA World Factbook provides a brief profile of Burma, including information relating to the Burman geography, people, government, economy, communication, transportation, military and transnational issues affecting the Burman people. Visuals include a large map of Burma.

EarthRights International - Burma Project

One of the plaintiffs in the case documented by NOW's Global Business vs. Global Justice, EarthRights instituted its Burma Project in 1995.

The Burma Project
The Burma Project, established by the Open Society Institute in 1994, is dedicated to increasing international awareness of conditions in Burma and to helping the country make the transition from a closed to an open society. To this end, the Burma Project initiates, supports, and administers a range of programs and activities around the globe.

Online Burma/Myanmar Library
This site, hosted by iBiblio ("the public's library and digital archive"), provides classified and annotated links to more than 5000 full text documents on Burma/Myanmar.

Democratic Voice of Burma
The Democratic Voice of Burma is a non-profit Burmese media organization committed to responsible journalism. They strive to provide accurate and unbiased news to the people of Burma; to promote understanding and cooperation amongst the various ethnic and religious groups of Burma; to encourage and sustain independent public opinion and enable social and political debate; and to impart the ideals of democracy and human rights to the people of Burma.

SEATTLE TIMES Special Project: "A Journey of the Heart"
Follow the journey of SEATTLE TIMES writer Paula Bock through Burma in 1997.


Sources: Amnesty International; Asia Observer; The Burma Project; FAULTLINE; Frommer's; Human Rights Watch; Unocal; U.S. Campaign for Burma; San Jose University Economics Department; The White House


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