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The Role of the International Community
International policies towards Burma continued to be contradictory. While Western governments supported limited sanctions and the political isolation of the SPDC, Burma’s Asian neighbors called for closer engagement. In particular, China remained Burma’s most important trading partner and arms supplier, while contacts with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) increased following Burma’s 1997 admission to the organization.

United Nations
Concern over the suppression of human rights in Burma was again expressed through a number of U.N. bodies during the year. In particular, consensus resolutions were passed by the U.N. General Assembly in December 1997 and the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in April 1998, noting a broad range of human rights concerns and calling on the SPDC to protect democratic freedoms and institute dialogue with leaders of political parties, including the NLD and ethnic minority groups. Following Burma’s 1997 accession to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the annual report of the Special Rapporteur, Rajsoomer Lallah, also highlighted incidents of forced labor and rape as well as the plight of refugee women. Alvaro de Soto, representing the U.N. secretary-general’s office, visited Burma in January, where he met both SPDC leaders and Aung San Suu Kyi.

In August, Secretary-General Kofi Annan, at U.S. urging, offered to send Ismail Razali, the former Malaysian representative to the U.N. as well as former president of the General Assembly, to Burma to facilitate talks between the government and the opposition. But the SPDC almost immediately rejected the offer, in part because of its American origins.

Longstanding U.N. concerns over the practice of forced labor by the military authorities in Burma gained further urgency with the August report of the ILO, which concluded that compulsory labor was “pervasive” in Burma, widely performed by women, children and the elderly, especially forced on ethnic minority groups, and frequently accompanied by physical abuse, including beatings, torture, rape and murder.

The role of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also gained new prominence in Burma. With an office in Arakan and efforts underway to wind down operations on the Bangladesh border, the UNHCR also turned its attention to Thailand after being invited by the Thai government to begin negotiations over a new monitoring role there. Some feared that role might lead to the eventual repatriation of over 100,000 refugees to Burma.

European Union
During 1998, the European Union (E.U.) ban on arms sales to Burma remained in place as did the restriction against SPDC officials visiting E.U. countries. The European Commission’s March 1997 decision to suspend trading benefits to Burma under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) program was also imposed, effectively excluding Burma from participation in E.U.-ASEAN discussions. The SPDC was notably not invited to the Asia-Europe meeting (ASEM) summit in London in April. In addition, individual E.U. members imposed new restrictions of their own: the Labour government of the United Kingdom announced a new policy to “actively discourage” tourism in Burma, the first time a British government had made such a move over any country. An E.U. mission to Burma to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi and SPDC leaders was also proposed in August but rejected by the SPDC.

Despite condemnatory statements by E.U. bodies over the political and human rights situation in Burma, European companies went ahead with investments. The gas pipeline constructed across southern Burma to Thailand by the French oil giant Total, in partnership with the U.S. corporation Unocal, was completed in mid-year, while the British oil company Premier began construction of a new pipeline in the same area, despite E.U. recommendations against trade in Burma. The E.U. filed a brief in July with the U.S. district court in Massachusetts, invoking World Trade Organization agreements and stating that the 1996 Massachusetts Selective Purchasing Law, banning state business with companies that invested in Burma, was inhibiting U.S.-E.U. relations.

U.S. and Canada
The U.S. policy of economic and trade sanctions against Burma continued during 1998 and was strongly supported by members of Congress and officials of the Clinton administration. At the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in July, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke out forcefully on Burma. The U.S. continued to oppose any World Bank loans to Burma; in September, the bankdeclared that Burma was in arrears for its debts and that World Bank assistance could not be considered until they were paid.

The State Department repeatedly condemned the political crackdown on the NLD, warned that any moves against Aung San Suu Kyi would escalate the international response, and urged other governments including Japan to impose sanctions. The U.S. strongly protested the detentions and prison sentences given to political activists in May, calling on the Burmese government to “guarantee the basic rights to due process and to release those imprisoned for the peaceful expression of their political views.”

In April, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Bill Richardson, tried to visit Burma as part of a tour of South Asia but was denied a visa by the SPDC. The formal reason given for the decision was the U.S. ban on travel by SPDC government officials.

Narcotics policy on Burma shifted during the year. Burma is classified by the State Department as the world’s largest producer of illicit opium and heroin. But although Burma was decertified in 1998 for narcotics assistance, the U.S. decided in early 1998 to give up to $3 million towards a new crop substitution program by the U.N. Drug Control Program in the Shan State, along the China border. Narcotics programs have generally entailed cooperation with the Burmese military, but it was not clear whether this assistance did in fact mean any closer cooperation with the authorities.

The Canadian government publicly urged Burma’s rulers to initiate a “meaningful dialogue” with the NLD and condemned the travel restrictions on Aung San Suu Kyi and others. But Ottawa did not impose any sanctions beyond the withdrawal of GSP (Generalized System of Preferences) trade benefits in August 1997. Canada joined six other governments in issuing an appeal at the ASEAN ministerial meeting in Manila urging the SPDC to end the standoff with the NLD.

The first full year of Burma’s membership of ASEAN was marked by contradictory signals over what influence the organization might have in the country’s future. In general, ASEAN members continued their support for a policy of “constructive engagement,” arguing that Western isolation of the SPDC and trading sanctions were both discrimatory and counterproductive. Not all of ASEAN’s engagement was itself constructive, however: According to Jane’s Defence Weekly , a Singapore government-owned company (Chartered Industries) provided a prefabriacted factory to produce small arms and ammunition that was shipped to Burma in February.

At the same time, there were increasing indications of ASEAN frustration with Burma in both political and economic affairs. The regional financial crisis cuts two ways. Not only did the financial constraints in several ASEAN states, notably Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, curtail joint economic projects, but from the beginning of the year the SPDC also shut off its borders to imports, trying to salvage the value of the rapidly falling Burmese kyat . In particular, Thailand was frustrated by the continued closure by the SPDC of the Myawaddy-Mae Sot Friendship Bridge, a prestige Thai investment, as well as attacks by both Burmese army and DKBA troops along different parts of the border. The refugee crisis in Thailand became a matter of growing ASEAN concern.

As a result, although diplomatic exchanges between the SPDC and ASEAN members accelerated, there were also signs of ASEAN disapproval of the Burmese government. In December 1997, Aung San Suu Kyi sent a recorded message to ASEAN leaders for their annual informal summit, calling on them to support political change in Burma, and this call was generally heeded. In March, the Malaysian foreign minister, Abdullah Badawi, held a two-hour meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon, while southeast Asian nongovernmental organizations, led by the Alternative ASEAN Network, stepped up their campaign for democracy in Burma.

The most significant moves, however, came from Thailand and the Philippines, which advocated steps towards more open debate within ASEAN that would permit criticism of fellow members, like Burma.

Japan continued its two-track policy on Burma, providing limited economic assistance to the Rangoon government while urging improvements in human rights and restoration of democratic rule. A controversial decision in March to resume a $19.5 million Official Development Assistance (ODA) project to extend the Rangoon airport, initially suspended in 1988 following the military coup, was opposed by Japanese parliamentarians of both the ruling coalition and the opposition. The cabinet went ahead with the project, however, after a pro-business lobby in the Diet apparently convinced them it was “humanitarian aid” needed to restore airport safety. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicly called on Burma to improve human rights and begin a “meaningful dialogue” with the democratic opposition and Aung San Suu Kyi, but ministry officials said there were no explicit conditions attached to the ODA funds. The U.S. publicly and privately protested the decision.

Also in March, Japan gave Burma a $16 million grant in debt relief and took the lead in persuading the U.N. Drug Control Program to sponsor a seminar in Rangoon. At the meeting, Japan pledged $800,000 for crop substitution programs and agreed to give the funding without adequate measures in place to monitor its use. For the first time, Japan also agreed to fund efforts by NGOs to assist Burmese refugees on the Thai border; it gave $75,000 in early July.

Following the ASEAN meeting in Manila in July, Japan joined other governments in publicly calling on Burma to engage in the dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi. When Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura visited the U.S. in mid-August, he agreed with U.S. Secretary of State Albright to urge Burma to remove restrictions on Aung San Suu Kyi’s movements and to cease harassment of the opposition.

Relevant Human Rights Watch report:
Unwanted and Unprotected: Burmese Refugees in Thailand , 9/98





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