Asian help for Burma weakens sanctions

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The Independent Online
Advocates of human rights in Burma were yesterday celebrating the decision by the Dutch brewer Heineken to pull out of a big beer-making project in the capital Rangoon because of human rights concerns. But they may have overlooked an inconvenient detail: the Dutch brewer's stake in the project was instantly snapped up by its Singaporean partners, Fraser and Neave.

Although the Burmese human rights campaign has scored other victories in the withdrawal of investments by such names as Carlsberg, Pepsi, Reebok and Levi Strauss, foreign investment in Burma is rising.

The most active new investors are from nearby Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Singapore has more projects in Burma than any other country although Thailand is not far behind. But the biggest single investor in Burma, in terms of cash, is Britain, although the size of the British stake is distorted by a few large-scale oil and gas projects.

Entrepreneurs from the south-east Asian states are given full backing by their governments who claim to be pursuing a policy of "constructive engagement" with the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) which rules Burma. The Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) is working hard to bring Burma back into the fold and has even given the Burmese government observer status at its summit meetings, pending a decision on membership.

The United States, however, is to consult Asean on how best to curb a "new tide of repression" in Burma, the Secretary of State Warren Christopher said yesterday. One item on the agenda at Mr Christopher's meetings with Asean ministers in Jakarta on 23-25 July is the possibility of an economic boycott to nudge Burma's ruling military junta towards democratic reform.

The Burmese regime's most active supporters admit that the human rights situation is not perfect but claim that isolation and boycott will do nothing to improve matters.

In Hong Kong, the semi- official Trade Development Council has recently published a guide for investors which states that Burma's "economic performance and outlook have ... been clouded by calls from international human rights groups for political and economic sanctions against the Slorc government, which has recently begun a diversified campaign to improve its image".

The campaign is frequently pushed off course by the regime's propensity to round up political opponents for torture and imprisonment. However, there is no denying progress on the economic front where the once-stagnant economy is set to grow by around 7 per cent this year, following a similar level of growth last year. Foreign investors from Asia are making tracks to Rangoon to build hotels, set up textile factories and projects for the exploitation of Burma's rich natural resources.

Set against this enthusiasm the withdrawal of investment by American and a few European companies is unlikely to sway Burma's dictatorship.

Burton Levin, a former US ambassador to Burma, has described the Slorc as "the most stupid" regime he has encountered. Its leaders seem almost happy to court international opposition, secure in the belief that those closer to home will turn a deaf ear to boycott calls.

The Asian Forum for Human Rights this week called for economic measures to bring the Slorc to heel.

But the Forum's call is likely to be lost as regional governments encourage their businessmen to add to the $3bn (pounds 2bn) investment which has poured into Burma and which only seems to be inhibited by problems of bureaucratic incom-petence, unrealistic currency policies and other non-political barriers to foreign investment.