Leading article: A regime we should not be doing business with

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The latest report from the House of Commons International Development Committee calls Burma the "forgotten crisis". There is some justice in this description. Compared with other humanitarian catastrophes, the plight of Burma receives shamefully little attention from the outside world. The brutality of the Burmese military towards its own population rivals in horror anything seen in Darfur, Zimbabwe or North Korea. Yet beyond periodic pleas for the release from house arrest of Burma's democratically elected leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the rulers of this south-east Asian state seem to provoke considerably less indignation from the world's capitals than other flagrant human rights abusers.

The development committee is calling for a substantial increase in British assistance to the hundreds of thousands who have been internally displaced by the Burmese army. It adds some moral impetus, by pointing out that Burma presently receives less aid per head than any of the world's poorest countries. There is certainly a powerful case for the Government stepping up its delivery of life-saving aid. A danger exists that the corrupt military junta that has controlled the country since 1988 will try to block such deliveries (especially to those ethnic groups, such as the Karen, that have taken up arms against the regime). But the committee makes a convincing argument that assistance can be increased safely through cross-border aid projects that bypass the military. With World Health Organisation research showing that more than 11 per cent of Burmese males fail to make it to age five, due to a combination of disease and conflict, a failure to heed this call would surely constitute a terrible betrayal.

However, full economic engagement, which some have put forward as a way of opening up Burma, should remain off the agenda. There are already too many foreign interests trying to make money out of Burma at the expense of its people. Despite two decades of EU and US sanctions against Rangoon, commercial links between Burma and the outside world have been increasing. India is selling military helicopters to the junta, which are likely to be used for internal repression. Russia has agreed to build a nuclear reactor there. Burma is paying for such things with its abundant natural resources. China is a prime customer for Burmese timber. Some furniture products made from its forests have even been put on sale by British retailers. Meanwhile, the French oil giant Total has a wretched history of doing business with the ruling clique of generals.

All this has helped prop up the junta and contributed to the oppression of the Burmese people. Trade, on the whole, is empowering for the population of poor countries. But in Burma, raw materials are harvested through slave labour. Villages are forcibly cleared for logging. Trade, therefore, becomes another weapon in the hands of the generals. The same is true of tourism, which some have tried to promote as a way of helping directly the local population. The evidence suggests that any foreign exchange brought into the country tends to end up in the hands of the military elite, not those who need it.

The Burmese leadership is often characterised as "isolated". In fact, the regime has grown worryingly less isolated in recent years. As well as increasing aid, our government must apply greater pressure for all countries and business involved in any form of economic relations with the junta to desist. A good place to start would be the meeting of the Association for South East Asian Nations which meets next week. Unless we combine aid with tougher sanctions, we are simply giving to the Burmese people with one hand and taking away with the other.