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Date: Sat, 18 Feb 1995 19:32:23 -0800 (PST)
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Subject: BurmaNet News: February 18, 1995
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Date: Sat, 18 Feb 1995 19:32:17 -0800
The BurmaNet News: Saturday, February 18, 1995
Issue #111

The Forgotten Conflict

By Vibeche Holte, Burma Support Group-Norway, 18 February 1995

While the Western world is preoccupied with the conflict in Bosnia, or the Russian invasion of Chechenia, the Burmese people are fighting their own war against the brutal SLORC regime.

In May 1994, some young Norwegian and Burmese activists (among them some former YBF people) came together for a weekend seminar and formed the Burma Support Group ("Stottegruppa for Burma"). The support group is a non-political and non-religious independent organisation whose aims are to promote the work for peace and democracy in Burma. The organisations work consists of providing technical, financial and humanitarian aid, while spreading news and up to date documentation on the current situation in Burma. The costs of this work are covered by membership fees of 100 NKR (US$20) per year and by active fundraising. Most of the money has been donated by the Norwegian Department for Foreign Affairs (UD) and the agency for development and co-operation (NORAD).

Activities so far

In spite of the groups short history, it has managed to draw a lot of attention to its work, mainly through demonstrations and campaigns outside the Thai embassy in Oslo. Burma Support Group (BSG) has arranged seminars and conferences on the Burma conflict and has now a local support group at the University of Oslo (Blindern), along with a strong branch at the Voss high school where four Burmese students are attending the "media faculty" this year.

A frequent summer and autumn activity has been to hold stands in the main street of Oslo. In winter more energy is spent on publishing newsletters and spreading out information to the members. As mentioned before, the group has a concrete and practical aim, as well as working on the information side. The author of this article is engaged in an orphanage project where Norwegians are "adopting" young orphans from the Karen state on the Thai-Burmese border. This is a long term project which is very cheap and easy to organise. Members of BSG visited the orphanage in the summer 1994. The people in charge are a former guerrilla soldier who is Burmese and his wife who is a Karen nurse. So far they have adopted 16 children, and the plan is to build a school and two houses to lodge 50 children. The Norwegian "adopters" pay 100 NKR per month, which is little, but enough to save lives in the impoverished country of Burma. Another very concrete plan is to build a small hydro power station along the border river between Thailand and Burma in order to get electricity for the opposition movement in the area. We have already had a person down at the site, planning how to set up the project. This pre-project was sponsored by UD.

Short background information

The country is a little bit smaller than the combined areas of Sweden and Norway. The population is today approximately 45 million and consists of 16 major ethnic groups, where Burman comprising about three quarters of the population is the largest and most powerful. Buddhism is the largest religion (85% of the people), but there are also Christian and Muslim minorities. The country is situated in South East Asia and was a British colony until the end of the 1940's. After the second world war Britain agreed to grant the country independence.

General elections were held in 1947, the party run by Aung San (the father of the 1991 Nobel Peace Price winner) were victorious and formed a government. On the 19th of July, armed and uniformed men stormed the government building and shot the new political leaders. The person in charge of the coup was arrested and executed the following year. Since then the country has been plagued by civil wars.

When General Ne Win came to power in 1962, he abolished the constitution and legal system and forbid all political parties, apart from his own. He slowly drew Burma into a constantly worsening political and economic crisis.

In the spring of l988 people were increasingly de the situation became explosive. The students from the universities in Rangoon (the capital) organised demonstrations and claimed that the government had to release their iron grip on power. The opposition grew increasingly stronger day by day culminating in general strikes on the 8th of August 1988. Ne Win ordered his soldiers to halt the demonstrators and more than 500 innocent people lost their lives in the ensuing riots. Following this incident a lot of students and intellectuals had to flee into the jungle to hide from SLORC. In September radio programmes were interrupted with bulletins reporting that another coup had taken place. From this day Burma has been governed by a military regime, known as SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council). In February 1989 when the situation had deterioriated to its lowest ever point, SLORC announced that they would hold "free and just" elections. The result? As everybody knows, Aung San Suu Kyi's party National League for Democracy won an overwhelming victory, against all odds and to the eminent rage of the regime. Later the same year Suu Kyi was arrested and she is still being kept under house arrest in Rangoon, since the leaders deem her to be "too dangerous" for the country.

Situation Today.

The Burmese claim that the situation is constantly deteriorating. Even though the regime is said to be blatantly corrupt ( you can get anything for US$), it has unlimited power. In the meantime a constant war rages between SLORC and the different ethnic minorities.

The UN General Assembly has denounced the military regime in Burma, but very little has been done to pressurise the regime to release Aung San Suu Kyi and to restore peace and democracy. Many nations still deal with the regime, Thailand is dependent on the logging of mahogony and teak wood in Burma, having so little jungle remaining themselves, and the regime earns good money on drug trafficking in the Golden Triangle. At the same time the west exports weapons to the regime knowing they are to be used against civilians, as Burma has no foreign enemies. SLORC is preparing an enormous public campaign: the "Visit Myanmar (Burma) Year 1996." Much work is being done to restore the old architectional treasures but it is done by forced labour. If you don't want to work, you have to pay a large sum not to, but since nobody has this sum of money, they have to slave for the government, for only a symbolic salary. They even have to pay for their own food during work! The government expects 500,000 tourists to visit Burma in 1996 compared to only 50,000 in 1994.

BSG in Norway works to inform travel agencies and potential tourists to Burma about the real situation there. Many multinational companies have been installed for a long time in Rangoon, Pepsi, Shell, Toshiba, Agfa amongst many. The list is long with firms willing to invest in a country so rich of natural resources and with the added 'attraction' of such cheap labour.

Rumours abound that the regime has offered to set Ayng San Suu Kyi free on condition is that she leave the country immediately. In the West we have been able to see videotapes of her talking to the SLORC generals. Since we don't know what the talks were about, the Burmese use these "negotiations" as pure PR towards the rest of the world. A national convention sponsored by the junta has been meeting since 1992 to draft a new constitution. Articles agreed so far would effectively bar Suu Kyi from heading a government, while guaranteeing a dominant role for the armed forces for many years to come. In the meantime there are guerrilla wars going on in different areas of Burma. On Monday the 12th of December 1994 SLORC attacked Manerplaw and Dawngwin, where the democratic opposition movement have their headquarters. The aim was to erase the opposition, which for the main part consists of students and politicians in exile and ethnic democratic groups. The KNU (the Christian led Karen National Union), which has been fighting for greater autonomy since 1949, is the dominant force in a guerrilla alliance that is seeking a federal, democratic Burma. Many civilians have lost their lives in the struggle for independence, and the battle is continuing. The guerrillas still hold power in the so called "liberated areas".

What can we do?

There are always many things one can do . Find out whether your country is selling weapons to Burma, if they are, write protest letters demanding that this must come to an end. You can also check which companies are represented in Burma, and tell people to boycott them. Forming a pressure group, like we have in Norway, is fun and it certainly leads somewhere. And don't forget Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been imprisoned since the 20th of July 1989! Most essential of all: don't ever trust the SLORC regime, tell tourists to Burma that the junta is committing genocide, wiping out their own ethnic people.

For more information contact:
"Stoettegruppa for Burma",
St. Olavs plass, Pb. 6906,
0130 Oslo,