Myanmar: Problems On Several Fronts


Frank Milne

More than two months have passed since the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, with little sign of further movement towards the restoration of democracy, although she has been able to travel within the country, including a ten day visit to Mandalay and other towns in central Myanmar, where she received an enthusiastic welcome. She has said that the National League for Democracy (NLD) will be flexible and patient in talks with the government, and has acknowledged the need to involve the ethnic minorities in the process. There is no sign yet of the government conceding a role for her, or of talks getting underway, though the slow release of detained NLD members has continued. The forthcoming return of UN envoy Razali in early August may however bring about some further development. Some observers have suggested that the countryís dire economic situation led the government to release Aung San Suu Kyi in the hope of getting sanctions lifted, without having to move on to serious negotiations. Western countries have however not yet been persuaded to respond, and after a brief rally in May, the unofficial rate for the kyat has again slumped to an all time low of 1000 to the United States dollar (against the official rate of 6). Foreign disinvestment is continuing.

The government may have been distracted from coming to grips with the democracy movement by the current crisis in relations with Thailand. Underlying mutual suspicion between the two countries surfaced again in late May, when the Myanmar government accused Thailand of actively supporting a Shan insurgent group which attacked Myanmar army positions and the loosely allied United Wa State Army (USWA) close to the Thai border. Thailand has a major interest in the suppression of the UWSA, which controls much of the narcotics and methamphetamines flowing into Thailand, and Thai troops had been taking part in a major exercise along the border opposite the Shan state. The Thai government claimed its soldiers had only fired some warning artillery shots after stray shells had fallen on their side of the border, and denied that any Thai troops had crossed into Myanmar. (A Bangkok press report however claimed that Thai units with armour and artillery support had launched an offensive to destroy UWSA drug laboratories along the Thai-Burmese border.) In retaliation Myanmar closed the major border crossings from Thailand, effectively shutting down cross-border trade, expelled a number of Thai workers and restricted official contacts with Thailand. Since then the war of words between Rangoon and Bangkok has continued unabated, with official relations at a very low ebb.

A recent Amnesty International report noted that while there had been some improvements in human rights in Myanmar, such as the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, there was serious concern about civilians in eastern Myanmar being subjected to forced labour, extortion and arbitrary seizure of their property by army units. Although the practice of forced labour has formally been banned by the government, it evidently continues in the border areas. The report cites cases of villagers being pressed into service as military porters, and killed or injured in the cross-fire between the army and insurgents. There have also been allegations of numerous cases of rape by army personnel, particularly in the Shan states.

WATCHPOINT: Will Razaliís next visit give a further impetus to negotiations between the government and the NLD?


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