In Their Own Words: Burmese Law Students Respond to Reports of Economic Change

Burmese villagers being forced to work as uncompensated manual labor. Courtesy of HURFOM.

The Burma Lawyers’ Council (BLC) is an independent organization of Burmese lawyers on the Thai-Burma border that fights oppression and human rights abuses in Burma (Myanmar) and advocates for the restoration of the rule of law. The BLC runs a two-year capacity-building law school known as the Peace Law Academy (PLA). The PLA’s 25 university-aged students come from inside Burma and from refugee camps in Thailand for a law-based education that prepares them for work in a variety of NGOs. The long-term vision of the PLA is to help create a new generation of informed leaders, capable of navigating a changing political landscape despite the complex challenges posed by Burma’s ethnic diversity, rich natural resources, and decades of stagnation, oppression, and civil war under ruthless military rule.

As one of the final assignments in a six-month Environmental Ethics course exploring relationships between environmental, economic, political, and human rights issues in Burma, the students wrote “Letters to the Editor” of the New York Times in response to a March 17, 2010 article entitled, “Change Comes to Myanmar, but Only on the Junta’s Terms.”

This article outlines the baby steps towards privatization and democratization taken recently by the military government as it prepares for the first elections in over twenty years, scheduled for 2010. The article’s token example of the current changes is a natural gas pipeline that the authors claim may bring steady electricity to struggling Yangon, Burma’s largest city. But such pipelines have a dark history in Burma, and natural resource extraction projects lie at the heart of the current political situation’s complexity and tragedy.

Although the political opposition and civil society groups working to bring change to Burma acknowledge the military junta’s initial steps to loosen control, and are therefore adapting their strategies to harness new opportunities for progress, many feel that the international community’s optimism is dangerously premature. The PLA students emphasize the need to embrace recent changes without applauding a transition that is thoroughly inadequate or that legitimizes one of the world’s most brutal regimes.

The letter that follows is a representative statement compiled and edited by the PLA students, from their 25 individual letters.

Thane Grace*

Environmental Ethics Teacher

Peace Law Academy, Burma Lawyers’ Council

Mae Sot, Thailand

***

To the Editor of the New York Times:

The March 17 article, “Change Comes to Myanmar, but Only on the Junta’s Terms,” favors the Burmese military government based on unrealistic changes of the economic policy and politics of Burma. Those changes are not for the genuine benefit of the Burmese people. We must think seriously about why the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has been holding power for decades. Change requires political stability, but ongoing conflicts between ethnic groups and the SPDC show that national reconciliation is out of the question at this time.

Government assets are privatized only to military relatives and elite businessmen who support the government. Under restricted media and communication, running a business without corrupt connections is like building a house in the air. The government’s currency exchange rate and banking system do not give enough credibility for foreign investors to operate. Current economics are totally based on natural resource exploitation. Even though Burma has vast natural resources, the government monopolizes the economic system and does not support common economic growth.  Keeping people in poverty is government policy.

The government promises Yangon better electricity from the Pyapon pipeline, but historically, people have never benefited from government pipeline projects. From these developments, local people lose their lands without compensation, are forced to relocate, and suffer from forced labor, murder, torture, and rape.  For example, in the Yadana and Yedagon pipeline projects, the SPDC militarized ethnic areas for project security and committed widespread human rights violations. Finally, the American corporation UNOCAL (now Chevron Corp.) compensated the victims of those violations, because of their wrongful cooperation with the SPDC. But the SPDC continues to receive billions of dollars from the project without consequence. The promises of new pipelines are doubtful.

Logging, mining, dams, and gas-pipeline projects are not only for economic benefit but also political strategies towards the international community and ethnic resistance groups under ceasefire agreements. For example, allowing Chinese companies to build large dams maintains friendship with the Chinese government, which has veto power on the UN Security Council and consistently rejects resolutions against Burma. Also, to prevent unity among ceasefire groups, the SPDC carefully permits some groups to cooperate in mega-development projects. The environmental consequences of natural resource exploitation — deforestation, erosion, water pollution, climate change, etc. — affect the livelihoods of ordinary people. The profit is not considered for social development, but only for increasing military power.

The military regime promises to decentralize and share political power within the constitution and coming elections. However, the elections will not be recognized as free and fair unless 2,100 political prisoners including Daw Aung San Su Kyi are released and able to participate.  Under the 2008 constitution, the military automatically gets 25 percent of seats in Parliament, and is given impunity for past and future crimes under Sections 319 and 445.  Furthermore, it already prepared its own political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Association, and began campaigning before election laws were passed. This shows the military regime’s dishonesty and unwillingness to share power. But no one can criticize the 2010 elections; we do not have freedom of speech or rule of law.

Please draw international attention to the SPDC’s constitution, shameless maintenance of power, and oppression of democracy activists. Without political stability, there can be no economic change in Burma.

Sincerely,

Peace Law Academy Class of 2010

Burma Lawyers’ Council

Mae Sot, Thailand

* Editors’ Note: name is changed for the protection of those working in and near Burma.

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