For West, Burma is a forgotten country

Nick Mathiason

Walk around Rangoon and you’d never guess you were living in one of the world’s most brutal regimes. The military presence doesn’t feel overbearing. In plain clothes, though, lurk military intelligence agents. They are everywhere. And then there are the informers on street corners and at meeting places. Burma is a country where no one can trust their neighbour.

Oppose the military junta and you will be informed on and tracked down. Evade them and family members will be arrested and tortured. Rape is a weapon of control. This may be a country of 48 million people, but the army of 500,000 is sovereign. Burma, which borders Thailand, China, Laos and Bangladesh, may be rich in gems, timber, oil and gas. It may have a thriving garment industry. But the wealth is hoarded by the army generals. Nowhere on earth is less spent on health as a proportion of GDP. And no country has a greater number of child soldiers - nearly 70,000 of them - as a proportion of its population. Then there are the displaced people: 1 million living in refugee camps. And the little matter of opium: Burma is the world’s second largest producer.

On the few occasions when the population has risen up over the past 20 years they have been mo-wed down by a junta that, in the last year, has become even more hardline after a coup solidified the army’s stranglehold on the country. It’s nearly 20 years since pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi won over 80 per cent of the vote in a free ele-ction that was subsequently ignored by the authorities. For nearly 10 years now, Suu Kyi, 60, has lived under house arrest. The closest you can get to her is a road block manned by soldiers at the end of her street. But perhaps even more scandalous is how little fuss is made by the G7, the EU and the UN about Burma’s further slide into a vicious, sweatshop nightmare. France, whose main oil company Total has extensive interests in the country, has opposed moves to tighten lightweight European economic sanctions. The world’s biggest banks have acted to help the junta circumvent US laws stopping it trading in dollars by enabling the regime to open euro accounts.

British imports from Burma have surged. This under a Labour government which in opposition said it would do all it could to help the pro-democracy movement. The British government has singularly failed until now to take a lead in Europe or even attempt to table a motion in the UN urging concerted action against the authorities. British Foreign Office ministers explain this away by saying that China, which has oil and timber agreements with the Burmese government, and France would defeat such a move. We may be living in a media age, but the trouble with Burma is that its day-to-day struggles are not recorded. Any journalist taking

notes or filming runs a real risk of imprisonment. On Friday a delegation of Burmese campaigners, led by Glenys Kinnock MEP, met Tony Blair at Downing Street in London. Blair said he would put Burma on the agenda during Britain’s presidency of the EU. He promised he would try to beef up the EU’s so-called ‘common position’. He said he would record a birthday message to Suu Kyi on the BBC World Service - her only contact with the world. Blair’s words and actions are needed by a forgotten country. —The Guardian