The Guardian February 2, 2000


Burma:Forced labour, drugs and military dictatorship

Ever since the military leadership headed by Generals Saw Maung and Khin 
Nyunt seized power in Burma in September 1988 the repression against the 
peasants and other toilers has been intensified.

The military regime, which calls itself the State Law and Order Restoration 
Council (SLORC) and which subsequently changed the name of the country to 
Myanmar, was formed specifically to block any transition to democratic rule 
and to perpetuate the tyrannical rule of the corrupt military leaders.

Behind Saw Maung and Khin Nyunt was former President and military dictator 
Ne Win, pulling the strings from his "retirement". Khin Nyunt, as head of 
the Directorate of Defence Services Intelligence for the last 15 years, is 
responsible for counter-intelligence and security.

Khin is held responsible for much of the brutality and terror that has been 
inflicted on the Burmese people. He also heads the innocuously-named Office 
of Strategic Studies (OSS), a military think-tank comprising high-ranking 
intelligence officers who wield tremendous authority.

The Burmese regime routinely resorts to forced labour to carry out its 
commands. A retired US army sergeant who served in numerous US special 
operations as well as several tours at the US embassy in Burma  and 
demonstrated in Seattle against Burma's participation in the World Trade 
Organisation (WTO)  said SLORC "is running the country like it's the 
army".

Also in Seattle were representatives of the Burmese people. One of them, 
Stephen Dun, a member of the Karen minority, which has been the victim of a 
bloody repressive war waged by the military regime, presented a statement 
at the AFL-CIO rally in Seattle.

"Forced labour is used to build roads, to build airport runways for 
tourists, to build military camps and facilities, and to produce crops and 
products for international trade", he said.

"Let me tell you about the conditions for forced labourers: girls and women 
are harassed, molested and raped by soldiers. Men and women are chained at 
night like animals, so that they cannot run away. Those who work too slowly 
are beaten, and even killed."

A 1998 report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO)  the United 
Nations' peak labour body  stated that government officials and the 
military "treat the civilian population as an unlimited pool of unpaid 
forced laborers and servants at their disposal" and that life under the 
SLORC regime is "a saga of untold misery and suffering, oppression and 
exploitation of large sections of the population".

In the same year the US Government's own Department of Labour, never one to 
want to ruffle the feathers of "friendly states", had to admit, albeit 
grudgingly, in a Report on Labour Practices in Burma that "forced 
labour has reportedly been imposed upon many hundreds of thousands of 
people in Burma since the early 1990s".

And in June of last year, the ILO once again termed the system of forced 
labour in Burma a "contemporary form of slavery" and took the unprecedented 
step of banning Burma from receiving assistance or attending ILO meetings 
until it ended the practice.

In an informative article in The San Francisco Bay Guardian in the 
last week of 1999, US radio current affairs commentators Dennis Bernstein 
and Leslie Kean noted that "along with the advantage of a huge pool of free 
labour", Burma's military rulers have been actively backed up by the WTO.

They pointed out that the WTO was the first to challenge a 1996 
Massachusetts law that sought to impose a state boycott on business 
dealings with Burma similar to the successful anti-apartheid boycott laws.

Under the heading "Perks for dictators", Bernstein and Kean revealed other 
benefits that membership of the WTO has brought to SLORC's military elite, 
such as the WTO-sponsored two-day course last July in Rangoon, Internet 
Technology.

Participating in the elite computer training course with some 30 junta 
members were officials from Khin Nyunt's Office of Strategic Studies....

"In contrast", write Bernstein and Kean, "the few citizens of Burma who can 
afford a computer are denied the right to have one. Those caught with an 
unsanctioned computer face imprisonment for as much as 15 years."

WTO Director-General Michael Moore has welcomed Burma (Myanmar) as an equal 
partner in the WTO, despite its failure to meet the basic ILO standards 
that supposedly guide the WTO's labour code.

Larry Dohrs, director of public education for the US-based Free Burma 
Coalition was understandably angry at this: "How can the WTO rationalise 
having a member that has been kicked out of the ILO?"

But it is not hard to understand why an imperialist instrument like the WTO 
would nurture the SLORC generals: they are holding the leftist popular 
forces at bay in Burma, keeping the country wide open for transnational 
exploitation.

At the same time, the generals also provide another valuable service to 
imperialism: the drug trade, which provides imperialism with huge amounts 
of available capital for takeovers and investment, political campaigns and 
covert operations, besides its usefulness as a political and social weapon.

Khin Nyunt, "one of the junta's most powerful and feared members", has been 
particularly successful, according to Bernstein and Kean, in "stimulating 
free trade in one of his country's most profitable business ventures: the 
export of heroin and other drugs".

The US journalists report that in October last year, Khin paid a visit to 
the rural headquarters of Wei Hsueh-kang, "an ethnic-Chinese drug lord who 
is wanted for trafficking by both US and Thai authorities.

"Wei's amphetamine factories are believed to be the key source for the 
explosive wave of Burma's newest export, which is now devastating the youth 
in neighbouring Thailand.

"But this has not stopped Khin Nyunt from comfortably visiting road and 
dam-building projects being undertaken with drug profits in Wei's area.

"In fact, this particular free trade zone is expanding, thanks to Khin 
Nyunt and the rest of the Generals in charge. Wei has recently been allowed 
to spread his business south, infuriating Thai officials."

The Thai newspaper The Bangkok Post, in reporting this development, 
said that SLORC's "tacit approval of Wei's drug activities can only add to 
the regime's foul reputation as a real danger to the well-being of the 
global community of nations".

A 1993 memo from the Thai Government's Office of Narcotics Control Board 
names Khin Nyunt as a key "supporter" of Lo Hsing Han, whom Bernstein and 
Kean identify as "one of the largest heroin traffickers in the world".

According to the Thai memo, in February 1993 Lo Hsing Han was granted the 
"privilege from Brigadier General Khin Nyunt to smuggle heroin from the 
Kokang group to Tachilek [on the Thai border] without interception".

Today, write Bernstein and Kean, Lo and his son, Steven Law, "are two of 
the leading lights in Burma's business community".

At the WTO meeting in Seattle, demonstrators agitating for democracy and an 
end to military rule in Burma were savagley attacked by the Seattle police.

"It's ironic to think that peaceful demonstrators  truly peaceful  were 
gassed and shot with rubber bullets as they sat, in order to protect an 
institution that was meeting inside with the Burmese dictators treated as 
honoured guests and normal members", observed the Free Burma Coalition's 
Larry Dohrs.

Meanwhile, WTO head Michael Moore tried to appeal to the former activists 
among the WTO delegates (including Burma's ambassador U Tin Win) at 
President Clinton's luncheon on December 1: "There are so many in this 
conference who also marched, protested, went to prison, fought, suffered", 
he said.

"The idealists sit in this conference ... These men and women were chosen 
by their people, they must ask their Parliaments and Congresses to ratify 
what they agree."

Larry Dohrs was not impressed. "Burma must have slipped Moore's mind when 
he made this statement", he said. "Not only is democracy non-existent in 
Burma, it is for all practical purposes illegal."

None of Burma's current rulers were chosen by their people, and the duly 
elected Parliament has been prevented from taking office by order of SLORC.

Bernstein and Kean conclude their article with a quotation from "a recent 
interview with the chief of the Myanmar (Burma) mission in Washington, 
Minister U Thaung Tun: `Every issue deserves concern in an appropriate 
forum. And for labour, it is the ILO', he said, surprisingly referring to 
the United Nations body that had expelled Burma for its practice of massive 
forced labour.

"He believes that the ILO `allegations' were made for `political reasons' 
and says he has invited an ILO delegation to `come and look'. However, 
during the ILO investigation all requests from the ILO commission for 
access to the country were denied."

A civil war has been raging in Burma for decades now. The people want 
democratic rights and peace. They deserve nothing less.

The democratic forces can be supported by boycotting companies that do 
business in Burma and by demand that Australia cut all commercial ties with 
members of SLORC.

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