Slave Nation

Aung San Suu Kyi may be free, but Burma has become a prison without walls

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Milan Kundera once wrote that the “struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Few outside Burma know about the epic events that took place here between 1988 and 1990. Few have heard of the White Bridge on Inya Lake in the center of Rangoon, now known to foreign businesspeople as the site of an “international business center.” Yet it was here that an uprising as momentous as the storming of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was sparked. On March 18, 1988, hundreds of schoolchildren and students marched along the bridge, singing the national anthem, signaling that they wanted no more of the authoritarian rule that had been in place since a 1962 military coup. The march was as joyful as it was defiant. When suddenly they saw behind them the steel helmets of the Lon Htein, the “riot police,” they knew they were trapped.

According to eyewitnesses I have interviewed in exile, the soldiers systematically beat many of the protesters to death, singling out the girls. A few protesters managed to escape into the lake, where they were caught, beaten, and drowned. Of those who survived, 42 were locked in a waiting van parked in the noonday sun outside Insein prison, where they died of suffocation. At the White Bridge fire engines were brought in to wash away the blood.

This state-sanctioned violence did not put an end to the protests. On the contrary: After months of rising popular confidence, the moment of general uprising came precisely at eight minutes past eight on the morning of the eighth day of the eighth month of 1988. This was the auspicious time the dockers chose to go on strike, and the country followed: teachers, journalists, railway workers, weather forecasters, grave diggers, even prison warders and police. The massive demonstration, soon joined by students, numbered more than 10,000 protesters.

When Ne Win, the now-retired chairman of the ruling junta, kept his promise to “shoot to kill those who stand against us,” there were no television cameras linked to satellite dishes, as there were during China’s bloody response to the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square the following year. Over the next four days several thousand Burmese died in the streets and in the prisons, under torture, and even in their homes as the army stormed the crooked lanes, firing at random into flimsy homes. Anyone with a camera was a target. Perhaps the world really took notice only when a charismatic woman, Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the national hero Aung San, was placed under house arrest in July 1989. Thereafter, so the junta calculated, they could proceed with an election that, without her, they were certain to win and that would legitimize their dictatorship. In fact, they lost spectacularly: Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 82 percent of the parliamentary seats; she even swept the board in principal army cantonments.

Shocked, the generals (who had renamed the regime the State Law and Order Restoration Council, known by its Orwellian moniker SLORC) threw most of the newly elected Parliament into prison and turned Burma into what Amnesty International has described as “a prison without walls.” Since then, year upon year, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has translated Burma’s tyranny into the following catalog: “Torture, summary and arbitrary executions, forced labor, abuse of women, politically motivated arrests and detention, forced displacement, important restrictions on the freedoms of expression and association, and oppression of ethnic and religious minorities.”

What drew me to Burma earlier this year was a Human Rights Watch/Asia report that said that despite the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in 1995, “the overall human rights situation is worsening . . . As the SLORC has moved to attract international investment at least 2 million people have been forced to work for no pay under brutal conditions to rebuild Burma’s long-neglected infrastructure.” Having opened Burma to the “free market” and released its most famous prisoner, the SLORC bargained that the rapacious instincts of the “Asian Tiger” states and the venerable plunderers of the West would respond with the investment it craved. The SLORC was not disappointed. The U.S. government, in spite of a certain sound and fury by its representatives at the U.N., said it would continue “neither to encourage nor to discourage” trade and investment. The British government mounted a London trade conference—“Burma: The Next Tiger?”—funded by the Department of Trade, which was told about the “visionaries” in the SLORC. And, immediately upon Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, the Japanese government restored some $50 million in aid. The new Australian deputy prime minister, Tim Fischer, who had previously announced that “democracy is coming to Burma,” said that Australia could now adopt a “flexible” approach to a country that offered “great economic opportunities.”

By far the biggest investment, however, was already well established: a billion-dollar pipeline being built by the French oil company Total, partly owned by the French government, and its U.S. partner Unocal. This will carry Burma’s natural gas into Thailand and give the generals an estimated $200 million to $400 million every year for 30 years. Indeed, more than two-thirds of the SLORC’s foreign underwriting now comes from foreign oil companies. Tourism, the world’s fastest-growing industry, promises to complement the oil money—if not in “Visit Myanmar Year 1996,” then when the country’s roads, railways, bridges, and airports are rebuilt.

Scheming despots are, of course, nothing new. What sets SLORC-run Burma apart is slave labor and massive displacement of whole sections of the population. No modern state, whatever its totalitarian stripe, has turned itself into a vast slave labor camp in order to “develop.” Certainly, Pol Pot tried it in Cambodia as a means of control, but no one matches the SLORC in paving the way to “the market” with such brutal audacity. If the generals are allowed to succeed in this project—and they are already getting support from important allies like Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia, which have been promoting “constructive engagement,” a euphemism borrowed from the Reagan administration’s support for the apartheid regime in South Africa—they will command a pool of labor that will undercut the cheapest in Asia. This will attract capital, and eventually loans will be granted by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. If this occurs, “globalization” will mark another gain and humanity another loss.

Little of this has been in the news. “I’m afraid,” Aung San Suu Kyi told me, “that countries and events keep slipping from the headlines, and we have slipped.” That indifference has recently faded, though, as Aung San Suu Kyi’s celebrity has risen and the SLORC has mounted its own public relations campaign. In September, SLORC officials held their first press conference since Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, announcing that she had collaborated with subversives and received subversive materials, including a videotape of the Hollywood movie Beyond Rangoon. They vowed to take steps against her “if and when required.”

The day before the officials’ conference, Aung San Suu Kyi held a press conference of her own vowing that she would continue to hold regular weekend rallies at the front gate of her Rangoon residence. “We are increasing the momentum of our work, and they are increasing the momentum of arrests,” she told reporters. She has asked investors and tourists to stay away, pointing out that the foreign exchange they bring will widen the gulf between rich and poor and reinforce the power of the SLORC. “It is just not possible,” she said, “for foreign visitors, on a short guided trip, to know the truth, if they are interested in the truth.”

Indeed, few foreigners will be aware that a thousand people were recently thrown out of the village they occupied for generations near Lashio in Shan State, so that the army could extend the golf course for tourists. Dumped at gunpoint on land that is dry stubble, where it is not possible even to sink a well, they can only watch helplessly as their precious water sprays the greens of a new golf course.

In the deep south of Burma, in Mon State, I found what has been described as the “second death railway.” Connecting the towns of Ye and Tavoy, it connects with the notorious line built by the Japanese with the lives of more than 100,000 Asians and Allied prisoners of war. We came upon it in dense jungle beyond a village where emaciated young girls held out silver urns for contributions to the welfare of their community, a Buddhist tradition. Their face masks of thanaka—a yellow paste made from tree bark that protects and nourishes the skin—gave them the appearance of small ghosts emerging from the undergrowth. They were fortunate compared with the gangs of children at work half a mile away.

While adult slave workers toiled on 20-foot embankments, the children were engaged in a crude brickworks, most of them exposed to the premonsoon glare and heat. The youngest were only nine years old.

One estimate is that, out of 20,000 adults and children forced to build the railway, up to 300 have died from exhaustion and disease or have been killed. This seems conservative. We counted some 20 bridges in the area, and children appeared to be working on all of them. “No one can escape [forced labor],” one villager told me. “SLORC officials or the army go from village to village. They take a child, as long as he is strong enough, without asking permission of the parent.”

In one of its recent annual reports on human rights abuses throughout the world, the U.S. State Department says that the SLORC routinely uses slave labor and “will use the new railways to transport soldiers and construction supplies into the pipeline area.” The oil companies deny that the railway is linked to the pipeline project, and although most supplies are likely to arrive by sea, there can be no doubt that the railway will allow the generals to protect the companies’ investment and their own cut from it. In 1993 Total was contacted by officials of the Burmese government in exile, representing Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy. They provided the company with extensive evidence of slave labor along the pipeline route. They also demonstrated how the profits from the project would invariably buy the arms and military equipment to which about half of the SLORC budget is devoted, thus helping to underwrite the repression of the population. Total’s response was that it would continue. Unocal has described reports of slave labor as fabrications.

Aung San Suu Kyi discounts the notion, propagated by some investors, that the Burmese population at large benefits from foreign investment. “The best business opportunities always go to the same elite,” she told Le Monde in a recent interview. “There’s a class of people here who are getting very rich, so much so that they don’t know what to do with their money. Meanwhile there are people who are so poor—particularly in rural areas—that they are forced to take their children out of school.”

Desmond Tutu—like Aung San Suu Kyi a Nobel peace laureate—has said: “International pressure can change the situation in Burma. Tough sanctions, not ‘constructive engagement,’ finally brought about a new South Africa. This is the language that must be spoken with tyrants, for it is the only language they understand.” What is hopeful is that there is the promise of sanctions, coming not initially from governments but from a remarkable grassroots disinvestment movement in the United States. Modeled on the campaign to boycott apartheid South Africa, selective purchasing laws have been enacted by six American cities, including San Francisco and Oakland.

These laws prevent public funds from going to companies that trade with or invest in Burma. At the time of writing, New York state is considering similar legislation and one of the biggest investors in Burma, Pepsico, has partially withdrawn. Byron Rushing, who has written a selective purchasing law for the state of Massachusetts, told me: “In the case of South Africa, we were able to put pressure on a whole range of companies like General Motors, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi-Cola, and eventually most withdrew. And that really added to the pressure on the white South African government. That was a victory. As for Burma, it’s not going to happen overnight, but we have started. The civilized world should follow.”

Reprinted from the New Internationalist, June 1996.