Tuesday, June 24, 2008

China ups the ante in Myanmar

I have always found it disturbing the extent to which China, India and Thailand (and to a lesser extent France and Singapore) permit business people from their countries to invest in Myanmar – thus supporting the brutal regime of the military junta there. Sometimes it is even the governments themselves that are doing the investing (and in the case of China, supplying military hardware).

Today I read two stories – one in the Asian Wall Street Journal and the other in the International Herald Tribune – that suggest that China is increasing its support to Myanmar, despite the military’s brutal suppression of human rights and their incompetent and inhumane response to the recent cyclone disaster that left over 130,000 people dead.

The AWSJ reported that China’s trade with Myanmar had doubled over the past five years to about US$2 billion annually – something China calls “constructive assistance.” No wonder the sanctions imposed by the West have had little impact. The story said that Chinese officials defended their engagement of Myanmar “because the nation doesn’t pose an international security threat.”

Or to put it another way: “To hell with human rights and human suffering – as long as they can’t attack other countries, then it is okay to exploit their resources (to keep the generals living in luxury) and supply them with guns to suppress the ordinary citizens.”

According to the AWSJ, Myanmar now has the largest army in south-east Asia with 400,000 soldiers and military hardware that includes 200 tanks, 50 fighter planes and 300 armoured personnel carriers – all supplied by China.

And perfect for putting down any uprisings of monks.

I thought some of the quotes in the story from Chinese industry spokesmen to be rather galling. Xiao Zongwei, a spokesman for Cnooc Ltd – one of China’s biggest oil companies – said: “A company is in business for profits, not for politics.” Yes, that may be the case, but when a company’s business helps unelected military juntas to keep their citizens in abject poverty, then they ought to rethink their rationale for doing business.

One other quote that did puzzle me though was a quote from a spokeswoman for the U.S. oil company Chevron. She said: “Chevron is maintaining investments in Myanmar assets for purely business reasons.” (Sounds like the Chinese talking). I thought Mr Bush had placed embargoes on U.S. companies investing in Myanmar – or perhaps that doesn’t apply to his oil and gas buddies?

Meanwhile, the IHT was carrying a story about the billions of dollars the military junta had spent in constructing its new capital city at Naypyidaw – complete with a zoo featuring white tigers, zebras, kangaroos and a penguin house (the penguins were donated by China and Thailand) which nobody could afford to visit. It seems ironic that the military is happy to spend thousand of dollars on air-conditioning to keep the penguins cold – but can’t provide basic electricity supplies to many of its ordinary (human) citizens.

The IHT report said that “engineers from China, which has a relatively close relationship with Myanmar’s leadership, are helping to build a giant hydroelectric dam on the Paunglaung River that will offer a steady supply of electricity to the new capital.”

The paper also reported the estimated cost of the new capital – off limits to ordinary citizens – at around US$4-5 billion. That is an incredible amount in a country where the average income is 80 cents a day.

One other quote in the story that attracted my attention was a reference to the deployment of soldiers during the time they were needed for rescue operations in the delta region after the cyclone devastated the region. An army colonel was reported to have said: “We’ve had to withdraw army boys from humanitarian activities to protect the coast in case the French, British and Americans land.”

That quote said a lot about the paranoia and callousness of Myanmar’s military junta.

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