Behind the Repression in Burma

 Neither the dissent in Burma nor its repression comes as a surprise. They represent the struggle between people who would prefer to live peaceful lives surviving on their traditional homelands and the global economy that has removed such options. Burma is a country rich in resources and fertile farmland, yet one-third of its children under five are malnourished. The largest country in mainland Southeast Asia, Burma is one of the most needlessly miserable countries in the world. Its population, estimated at 48 million, consists of 65 percent ethnic Burmese with the remainder from various other ethnic groups. As a result of British rule, there has been bitter hatred between lowland Burmese and the highlanders, which has kept the country divided, isolated, and therefore prone to military takeovers. 

Since 1988, Burma has been ruled by a brutal military regime, which came to power after killing thousands of pro-democracy activists. The new military government called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Committee (SLORC) and changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar. 

Officially, SLORC was euphemistically changed to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The Burmese people voted to oust the military through free elections in 1990. The regime refused to yield and continues to dominate by using tactics such as torture and slave labor to suppress dissent. Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy movement leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has been repeatedly placed under house arrest by the military regime. 

Burma has the worst human rights record in the world and has been repeatedly condemned. The SPCD does not recognize the concept of human rights and there is no freedom of assembly, press, or religion. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has found that “a modern form of slave labor” is practiced by the Myanmar (Burmese) military where from 1992 to 1996 two million people were forced to work without pay, some in leg shackles. The Burmese military systematically rapes ethnic minority women as a form of ethnic cleansing as it redistributes the ethnic balance as a result of the children born from the rapes. For the Burmese military, rape is viewed as legitimate behavior and a weapon of war—in violation of the Geneva Conventions. 

To understand why Burmese military rule is tolerated by powerful nations like the U.S., it is important to look at the natural gas deposits discovered in 1982 in an area later named the Yadana field. The Yadana pipeline was begun in 1994 and completed in 1998 by a consortium including Unocal, a U.S. corporation, and the French oil company Total- FinaElf. During Clinton’s presidency, companies already doing business with Burma were exempted from international sanctions that were placed on Burma for its human rights atrocities. Unocal was purchased by Chevron, which benefited from the exemption and continued to do business with the military regime. Premier Oil, a British company, was also heavily invested in Burma, particularly in the Yetagun natural gas pipeline, which runs parallel to the Yadana pipeline and is a joint venture with the Burmese military gov- ernment. 

Chevron and Total are refusing to pull out of Burma. Premier Oil pulled out in 2002 following intense world pressure; its assets are now in the hands of a company based in Malaysia. Other investors in Burma’s oil and gas industry include companies from Australia, the British Virgin Islands, China, India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Russia. Sales of natural gas account for the single largest source of revenue to the military government; gas exports accounted for fully half of the country’s exports in 2006. The funds from these foreign investments flow directly to the government and provide the military junta with a major source of funding. 

Villagers in the pipeline region live a miserable, oppressed, precarious existence, in part due to the deals made between these foreign oil and natural gas companies. Entire villages have been relocated at gunpoint, women have been raped, and children killed by Burmese military units providing security for the gas pipelines. Whole families have been forced into slave labor to construct infrastructure used by foreign oil companies. 

The pipelines cut directly through the Tenasserim rainforest, one of the largest intact rainforests in Southeast Asia and home to diverse peoples and numerous endangered species, including Asian elephants, tigers, and rhinoceroses. The pipelines have permanently destroyed the environment. 

Analysts suspect the money paid by Thailand for gas from the Yadana pipeline will go directly into the pockets of the military which increases the inflation and poverty in Burma. The displacement of forests and farmlands by oil pipelines and military forces to protect them has become a frequently repeated pattern. 

There are 45 million acres of potentially arable land in Burma. This is about 25 percent of the total land mass. Half of the arable land is cultivated by families who have small plots of land. It is estimated that 77 percent of the main source of income of rural households is agriculture. For subsistence living to occur, each farm must be approximately five acres. Of the 4.7 million farm households, over 60 percent have less than that. Of the rural households surveyed by the United Nations Land Development Program, 35 percent were landless, 40 percent owned no livestock, and 24 percent owned no land or livestock. 


A government billboard in Yangon, Union of Myanmar— photo by Brent Lewin, GlobalAware

Legally, all land in Burma is state-owned. Use rights are given to farmers who must not leave the land idle for more than three years, otherwise the land reverts back to the state. Because farmers do not own the land, they are unable to obtain loans using the land as collateral. Instead they may only receive small loans at high interest rates. The farmer’s inability to own and mortgage land has had a severe impact on agricultural production. Land tenancy results in a reduced incentive for investment or improvement in the land. 

Beyond lack of ownership of land, there is an inadequate incentive structure for farmers to produce. There is a tax on the use of the land to produce rice. Also, an export tax on rice is enforced by a legal monopoly, the Myanmar Agricultural Produce Trading (MAPT), a government-owned enterprise. A government monopoly also controls exports of cotton, jute, sugar, and rubber. Since 1995, a decline in the growth of agriculture has resulted in static yields of crops relative to other Southeast Asian coun- tries such as Thailand. 

In 1998 the government began using forced labor to develop 22 million acres of wetlands and pristine untouched lands. In order to develop these lands, “labor villages” were established to assist private entrepreneurs and foreign investors. Eighty- two business groups own over a million acres of this reclaimed land, while local people are now denied access to these lands. The Free Burma Coalition (FBC) estimates that at present, one million Burmese are internally displaced by the government and are being used as forced laborers. Their whereabouts are unknown to their families and their length of service indefinite. General Khin Nyunt, the SPDC leader, has denied government involvement in forced labor and claims that these people have contributed their labor voluntarily so government projects can be com- pleted sooner. 

Burma’s government-controlled agricultural economy presents a looming agrarian crisis where the only agricultural success is the illegal opium industry, much like Afghanistan and Colombia. Burma continues, with the collusion of the military, as the world’s largest source of illegal opium and heroin, about 60 percent of the world market. Not only is valuable farmland being used to grow the opium poppy but, because heroin is so easily available, it is now being used inside the country. In some townships, as many as 25 percent of the people are injecting heroin. Since it is a crime to carry needles in Burma without a medical license, needles are at a premium and are shared. As a result, HIV infection among drug users in Burma is the highest in the world. 

Burma, once the wealthiest country in Southeast Asia, is now the poorest in the region with the highest infant mortality rate and the least expenditure on healthcare and education. Meanwhile, 40 percent of the national budget goes to the military, which views the independence movement as a constant threat. The enforced poverty, food shortages, and torture will hopefully become catalyst for the removal of the corrupt and illegal military regime that is nonetheless a tolerated trading partner among Western powers. In the meantime the horrible economic conditions have led to a migration to Thailand where global corporate expansion has created cheap labor jobs providing goods for export. Many have been lured by brokers and sold into slavery or bonded indebtedness. The migrants become an underclass of non-citizens. 

In a country that exemplifies state terror it is remarkable that informal channels have been able to spread information about recent efforts by Buddhist monks to end the cruelty and the massive protests that followed. The response from wealthy countries like the U.S. to the Burmese military suppression has been tepid and has not included calls on the oil and gas corporations to divest. Once again the priorities of U.S. foreign policy are made clear. Corporate investors can continue indefinitely to sustain military dictatorships while their PR releases that they are a force for good continue. And the expressions of advocacy for democracy, human rights, and protection of the environment remain as slogans to be used when they happen to support corporate interests. 


Mark Pilisuk is professor emeritus at the University of California’s Saybrook graduate school and research center. Jennifer Rountree is a doctoral student at Saybrook. This article is an excerpt from Who Benefits from Global Violence and War: Uncovering a Des- tructive System by Pilisuk and Rountree (Greenwood/Praeger).