At the time of writing, it is three months since Burma's illegal military regime, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), released Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. But there is no evidence at all that it will grant Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and long-detained leader of Burma's democracy coalition, any power by dealing seriously with her or giving her a role in constitution building--making her undoubtedly the world's most famous powerless leader.
Like Gandhi in India, she has become the embodiment of the Burmese people's political hopes. And also like Gandhi, she presents some remarkable paradoxes. Even though she has no actual power and has said she doesn't want power, Suu Kyi is a world figure. She is a beacon of hope to the militarily oppressed people of her country though she refuses to use force to free them. And finally, though she comes from the comfort of an elite military family, it is her acceptance by the poorest people around her that gives her what power she has.
In the months before her arrest, Suu Kyi travelled across Burma's almost impenetrable mountains and jungles and up its great rivers, sometimes in the thick of civil war, to meet the people from the many varied ethnic groups that make up the country. No one, except her own father many years before, had undertaken such a trip. As she became more and more popular, the regime got more and more frightened of her. She responded by simply staring down the soldiers who trained their rifles on her and continued holding meetings and speaking with the people.
Her leadership and charisma surmounted the impossible constraints SLORC imposed on its opposition. There was complete censorship. She and the other democratic leaders could not appear in the media. Officially, any meetings of more than four people were banned. So when the crowds turned out to see her and hear her words, the police and soldiers did too. No one knew when they would shoot.
In the end, she convinced the people that they had a part to play, the military could be defeated and a united Burma could be achieved. In May 1990, ten months after she was arrested, they turned out to vote massively for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. The military regime won only 2 per cent of the vote. Since then the military has consistently refused to recognize these results. There will be no more elections, they say, until the handpicked delegates to the National Convention produce a new constitution that enshrines the military as part of the ruling apparatus.
Suu Kyi knows, and she knows they know, that the student massacre of 1988, when thousands of peaceful demonstrators were shot dead in the streets of Rangoon, Mandalay and Moulmein, could happen again. In her first few months of solitary house arrest, she wrote, "It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it." The student demonstrations, she said, were caused not so much by economic hardship as by the "humiliation of a way of life disfigured by corruption and fear."
This disaster led to the complete withdrawal of foreign aid by western governments and Japan. The military regime desperately needs the reinstatement of this aid, and there are many signs that western countries are looking for an excuse to go in. A word, a hint from Suu Kyi could easily open the doors to such investment. But she carefully points out that nothing has changed except her own release. Any new investment, she says, must first help the people.
In fact, the military's mindless, lawless violence, its use of slave labour, rape and constant repression, are escalating, especially in the ethnic border states. The people's fear, which Suu Kyi once briefly succeeded in dispelling, has returned. An Amnesty International news report recently confirmed the finding of nine more forced labour camps. Conditions in these camps are so bad that some have a 50 per cent mortality rate.
The people are faced with a huge and growing army of about 400,000 troops, in a population of some forty-five million. But the army can survive only because its leaders take a cut from all economic activity of any size. It is estimated that between 50 and 70 per cent of the gross expenditure of the country is spent on the army and its weapons. And military leaders' fingers stick to nearly everything, from Pepsico's bottling plants to the new shopping malls and hotels going up in Rangoon for tourism year--"Visit Myanmar 1996."
There is a steady increase in investment and trade both from Burma's Asian neighbours and from western democracies. The regime boasted early this year that it had the highest accumulation of foreign investment in its history. Canada is a small player in this debacle, but still a player. Most worrying is a federal government that now seems specifically to dissociate support for international human rights from its foreign policy and trade decisions. It does not encourage business in Burma but does not prevent it. Ottawa allows mining firms like Ivanhoe Capital, formerly of Vancouver, to explore for copper and gold in Kachin state and sign deals for their exploitation. Northern Telecom, Texaco, Heineken and Pepsico are corporations familiar to Canadians that are doing business with the military regime.
One project in particular could finish off the democracy movement --and Suu Kyi's hopes. Along with SLORC and the Thai state energy agency, two western oil and gas corporations, France's state oil company TOTAL and the California company UNOCAL, are building a huge overland gas pipeline from the Andaman Sea across untouched rainforest in occupied Karen and Mon lands and into Thailand. When the pipeline comes on stream within a few years, about $400 million annually from gas sales to Thailand will flow into the coffers of SLORC. A new railway in the pipeline area, between Ye and Tavoy, is being built by the slave labour of up to 30,000 villagers (at any one time), who are neither fed, paid nor given medical attention. The railway is for the transport of SLORC troops and material, to maintain security in this "insurgent" region whose citizens have been struggling for their rights for decades.
Consumers Gas in Ontario buys a small proportion of its gas supplies from UNOCAL, as does British Columbia Gas. Canadian Friends of Burma is urging these provincial utilities to end their contracts on the grounds of UNOCAL's association with SLORC. It is also boycotting firms that do business with Burma (Pepsico, Texaco and Heineken, for example), writing letters of inquiry to corporations and MPs, and urging universities and municipalities to stop doing business with companies that deal with SLORC.
A major Canadian chartered bank has now joined the ranks of corporations (Levi-Strauss, Eddie Bauer, Liz Claiborne) that have pulled out of Burma because of SLORC's human rights record. Scotiabank obtained approval from Rangoon this spring for a licence that would allow it to do business in Burma. But in September, after an exchange of letters, members of Canadian Friends of Burma learned that the bank had decided to let the licence lapse. President Bruce Birmingham told them the bank had been convinced the time was not right after briefings by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
A poem quoted by Aung San Suu Kyi in her famous essay "Freedom From Fear" is a coded plea for help. She's talking about the Burmese people, held in what she calls the cupped hands of the military--cupped hands that can crush them at any time:Emerald cool we may be
Tiny splinters of glass can help force the hands of the military. There is not much we can do from here. But it is imperative that we do it.
Penny Sanger lives in Ottawa and is a member of Canadian Friends of Burma.
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld