This article was last modified on May 22, 2008.

Empire Strikes First: Burma

The following article appears in the June 2008 issue of The Scene.

Burma [1] has traditionally been a peaceful nation known for political neutrality and its association with thousands of Theravada Buddhist monks. Shortly after Burmese independence in 1948, U Thant was appointed the United Nations Secretary-General. Thant is remembered for mediating talks in the Congo and bringing the Cuban Missile Crisis to an end.

This docile reputation was tarnished when General Ne Win overthrew the government in 1962. Pyae Phyo Kyaw, a Burmese citizen attending Lawrence University, says that the “reason for the junta’s coup was to maintain the peace and sovereignty of the country because the country was falling apart at the time with the conflicts between different ethnic groups and the prime minister was too weak to take any action.” President Kennedy was simultaneously luring warring Chinese Communists across the border in order to convert the isolationist country into a pro-Western one, making a stronger Burmese military necessary. The controlling military junta has since gone by many names: the Revolutionary Council, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (with new leadership but similar structure) and eventually the State Peace and Development Council, a moniker George Orwell would have admired.

The military regime was/is brutally totalitarian, taking full control of business, the media and even the Boy Scouts. Anti-government protests were crushed and outspoken students were occasionally killed. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of demonstrators died while campaigning for democracy in the 1970s and ’80s.

1990 featured free elections for the first time in thirty years. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won the election in a landslide, but results were declared invalid, and the junta refused to step down. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, where she remains. The regime announced plans to form a new constitution, but over fifteen years later all the people have received are broken promises. Professor Denis Collins, of Edgewood College, explains the situation bluntly. “Burma has an ethically bankrupt government … What great things has the military dictatorship achieved since 1990? Military leaders have gained tremendous wealth, and that is it. Burma remains one of the poorest nations in Asia and has no infrastructure. The nation barely survives off of income earned by exporting oil, heroin, and illegal immigrants.” Kyaw agrees, saying “nearly all of the things this government has been doing are bad for people” and it’s “getting worse.”

Rolls-Royce, Daewoo, Chevron and others are facing criticism for financing Burma’s military. Since its 2005 takeover of Unocal, Chevron has a 28% share in the Yadana gas field, earning millions of dollars for the regime. Companies are blocked from Burma by sanctions, but Chevron inherited Unocal’s grandfather clause and is exempt. Chevron defends itself by declaring health care was provided, though this claim is suspicious given the known treatment of employees and Burma’s bottom-rung ranking in world health. They have also distanced themselves by arguing that pulling out allows India or China to move in. This scenario is likely, but funding murderous regimes remains indefensible.

Chevron faces lawsuits from human rights groups and former employees that were slave laborers for Unocal, where the Burmese military tortured them with Unocal’s full knowledge. Unocal hired a former Pentagon analyst to investigate alleged abuses; he informed executives that the allegations were accurate and the rights violations were “egregious”, but the project continued. Employees tell of being roped together both day and night, tied so tightly that they had to sleep sitting up, locked in large cages. One was beaten while having water poured into his nose for several minutes. The International Labour Organization announced in November 2006 it would seek prosecution of the junta’s leaders for these and other incidents. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, once a member of Chevron’s board of directors, has been silent on her former company’s responsibility.

Pro-democracy protests and marches flared up again in 2007. Tens of thousands of Buddhist monks took to the streets, peacefully practicing civil disobedience (dubbed the “Saffron Revolution” in reference to their red robes). Nuns and countless civilians joined them and in one instance they gathered at Suu Kyi’s home, where she spoke, violating orders from the military. The junta came down hard on protesters, attacking or killing scores. The more prominent dissidents were jailed, tortured and refused visitation from the International Red Cross. Internet access was cut to keep the local population oblivious, and journalists were threatened to keep silent. Fortunately, many brave souls disobeyed and the world watched in disgust. In October, the junta forced people to march in a government rally, bribing them with the equivalent of 80 cents or threatening to fine factories not providing fifty employees for the staged march. The people saw through this facade.

The total number of sourced casualties varies. On the extreme end, Australian news (relying on a dissenting general) reports thousands of dead protesters and claims executed monks were found in mass graves in the jungle. Conversely, what is called the “official toll” tallies a modest thirteen. United Nations figures range from eighty to 110 and the Democratic Voice of Burma claims 138 were killed. Other sources report an incident where monks were lined up and their heads were beaten into a wall and their bodies loaded on to trucks. Even one death would have been unwarranted.

Last month, Cyclone Nargis destroyed a populous, rice-growing region of Burma. The death toll (as of this writing) is 80,000 with thousands missing and future deaths guaranteed from malaria and starvation. While the devastation was inevitable, its full extent was maximized by the junta’s failure to properly inform the people of the coming storms and continuing efforts to keep foreign aid out of the country. Susan Schaefer of the Southeastern Wisconsin branch of the American Red Cross tells of difficulty in delivering assistance. “One of the most significant challenges faced by any agency providing aid to the affected areas would be accessing the towns and villages when the roads and bridges are inaccessible…. getting relief items to disaster affected areas is difficult. Having to deliver aid by boat or plane adds several layers of complexity to any response.”

The regime refuses to admits its weaknesses and fears the outside world. Much of the foreign aid that has reached victims was handed out by General Than Shwe with the foreign markings removed, a clear propaganda play to empower the current leadership. Worse yet, the Associated Press and Human Rights Watch have reported that the military was hoarding foreign high-energy biscuits and distributing inferior biscuits to the needy. “Adding insult to injury” vastly understates how the government operates.

If the time to act is not now, when? Unfortunately, there is little that can be done. Although sanctions are popular in America, Britain and France, they are opposed by China, where they would matter the most. Collins suggests waiting may be the only option. “The Burma military dictators are a disgrace to social justice and it is only a matter of time before a real government is formed.” Other alternatives include pressuring companies doing business in Burma to pull out, push for further United Nations monitoring, and supplying aid to those in need. Says Schaefer, “The best way people can help right now would be by donating to the International Response Fund. The American Red Cross is currently supporting relief efforts by providing financial aid to our partners already operating in Myanmar. Cash provides more flexibility to purchase what is needed [from] neighboring towns, which will help support the local community which will be stressed by the number of displaced people from the affected areas.”

Contact Red Cross at: American Red Cross, International Response Fund, PO Box 37243, Washington DC, 20013. Or visit the website at

[1] At independence, the country’s name was “Burma”. In 1989, the military changed this to “Myanmar”, as well as renaming multiple cities without citizen consent. Today, there is a divide; “Burma” is used by those opposed to the regime’s legitimacy and those who feel “Myanmar” (the name of one ethnic group) excludes minorities. America, Britain and other Western countries prefer “Burma”, while the United Nations has accepted “Myanmar”. Although both are acceptable and are often used interchangeably in various news sources, I have used “Burma” throughout for both its historical and political value.

Also try another article under Historical / Biographical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

Leave a Reply