CHRO

Canadian Ties To Burma’s Dictatorship

by Canadian Friends of Burma

Although Burma is thousands of kilometres away, Canadians are very much connected to this Southeast Asian country of 50 million people. Ever since Burma’s military regime opened the country up to foreign trade and investment in 1989 for the first time in three decades, Canada’s corporate sector has been conducting business there. These commercial links have increased steadily over the past decade, rising sharply in the past few years to over $300 million of investment and $60 million worth of trade at the present time.

Burma’s Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi has called on the international community not to do business in her country under the current military regime. Leader of the National League for Democracy, which won an overwhelming victory in the country’s 1990 national elections, Aung San Suu Kyi stresses that foreign business only props up the military dictatorship and does not help the majority of Burma’s citizens.

More recently, reports to the ILO say that it is impossible to carry out business in Burma without benefiting from or perpetuating the country’s distinct brand of slavery to which hundreds of thousands of citizens are subjected each year. In response to this problem, last November, the International Labour Organization (ILO) called on its members, which include Canada, to review their connections with Burma to make sure they are not helping to foster the system of forced labour there.

Most of the heroin that comes into Canada originates in Burma according to the RCMP. Heroin has had devastating effects on people=s lives in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. The military dictatorship does not just turn a blind eye to the heroin traffic, it supports by letting convicted drug lords roam free and by allowing heroin profits to be laundered through state-owned banks controlled by the military regime. Moreover, the report Out of Control 2, produced by the Southeast Asian Information Network identifies heroin refineries that are located next to army bases and others, which are partially-owned by senior Burmese military generals.

Canadian Policy:

Although concerned with the deteriorating human rights situation in Burma, the Government of Canada continues to allow Canadian business in Burma. In August 1997, Canada removed Burma’s preferential tariff eligibility and restricted Canadian exports to Burma, to encourage the military regime to enter into meaningful dialogue with the leaders of the democracy movement.

Despite these measures, imports to Canada from Burma have more than tripled in the past four years. Last year’s import value of $60.794 million was more than double the value of the previous year (Industry Canada).

The Canadian government imposes absolutely no restriction on investment, which has shot up to over $300 million to date mostly in Burma’s mining and gas sectors. CFOB’s most recent research indicates that, since 1997, at least 11 new Canadian companies have invested in or expanded already-existing investment in Burma[1]. The Government of Canada maintainsthat with regard to investment, their hands are tied because of the Special Economic Mea! sures Act (SEMA). The recent ILO resolution, however, now fully justifies triggering the SEMA to ban investment.[2]

Canadian Corporations in Burma:

The largest foreign mining venture in Burma, Ivanhoe Mines, is registered in Canada’s Yukon to take advantage of generous tax incentives provided by the Territorial government. Invanhoe is involved in a copper mine, which is a 50/50 joint venture with Burma’s military controlled Mining Enterprise No.1″.

In research conducted by CFOB, testimony was received from Burmese villagers[3] stating that eight villages were forcibly relocated in June 2000 to make way for the Monywa copper mine’s expansion. Ivanhoe has already invested $150 million in the project and is looking for a further $400 million for its expansion. In addition, nearly one million workers toiled on the building of a railway line from Monywa to the district centre of Pakokku, while another 5,000 villagers had to contribute their labour to the irrigation development around the Thazi dam near Monywa. The proximity of these infrastructur! e projects to the mine would make it extremely difficult for Ivanhoe to avoid benefitting from forced labour.

Another significant Canadian commercial venture in Burma is the $24 million contract that Canadian Helicopters International signed in 1997 for five years involving two aircraft operating from Rangoon and a third remotely operated. Previously, CHC provided helicopter services for a French oil company named Total, for its work on the Yadana pipeline which was constructed with the help of forced labour.[4]

Currently, one of Total Oil’s foreign partners in the project, the American oil giant, Unocal, is being sued by 14 villagers who had been living in the vicinity of the pipeline and suffered terrible abuses by the military regime in connection with the project’s construction and security. In September 2001, a US Federal Court judge stated that evidence suggested Unocal knew about and benefitted from forced labour on the pipeline.

Forced Labour in Burma: A Modern Form of Slavery

One of the most pervasive human rights violations in Burma is the military regime’s system of forced labour. Called a modern form of slavery, by the United Nations, International Labour Organization (ILO), forced labour is used on a multitude of construction projects in numerous industries, from repairing tourist sites to carrying artillery for the army during military offensives.

The ILO took the strongest action it has ever taken towards a member country, against Burma, due to the country’s forced labour situation. In November 2000, the ILO called on its members, which include Canada, to review their connections with Burma to ensure that they are not helping to perpetuate the system of forced labour there. Reports to the ILO state that it is impossible to carry out business in Burma without benefitting from or perpetuating the country’s distinct brand of slavery to which hundreds of thousands of its citizens are subjected each year.

Generally any person in Burma can be forced into hard labour at any time by military authorities, men, women, children, the elderly, the sick and pregnant women. Forced labour is often accompanied by beatings, rape, deprivation of food, rest, and medical care.

ILO Report on Forced Labour:

After 30 years of criticism by the ILO of forced labour in Burma, in 1997, a commission of inquiry was set up to discover the facts. In July 1998, they released their findings in a 392 page document distilled from nearly 10,000 pages of testimonies and eye witness reports.

A year after the report was published, the military had still not taken any measures to fulfil the report’s recommendations to address the widespread use of forced labour. Therefore, in an unprecedented move, the ILO banned Burma from future meetings and from any future support until the regime takes significant steps towards positive change.

Report Excerpts:

There is abundant evidence before the Commission showing the pervasive use of forced labour imposed on the civilian population of Myanmar by the authorities and the military for portering, construction, maintenance and servicing of military camps, other work in support of the military, work on agriculture, logging and other production projects undertaken by the authorities or the military, sometimes for the profit of private individuals, the construction and maintenance of roads, railways, and bridges, and other infrastructure work..

… it appears that unfettered powers of military and government officers to exact forced labour from the civilian population are taken for granted…the manifold exactions of forced labour often give rise to the extortion of money…also to threats to life and security, extrajudicial punishment, physical abuse, beatings, torture, rape and murder.

Forced labour in Myanmar is almost never remunerated or compensated, secret directives notwithstanding, but on the contrary often goes hand in hand with the exaction of money, food and other supplies from the civilian population.

All the information and evidence before the Commission shows utter disregard for the safety and health as well as the basic needs of the people performing forced or compulsory labour…

A state which supports, instigates, accepts or tolerates forced labour on its territory commits a wrongful act…Whatever may be the position in national law…any person who violates the prohibition of recourse to forced labour under the Convention is guilty of an international crime, that is also, if committed in a widespread or systematic manner, a crime against humanity.

The Commission considers…the establishment of a government freely chosen by the people and the submission of all public authorities to the rule of law are, in practice indispensable prerequisites for the suppression of forced labour in Myanmar.

This report reveals a saga of untold misery and suffering, oppression and exploitation of large sections of the population. The government, the military and the administration seem oblivious to the human rights of the people, their actions gravely offend human dignity and have a debasing effect on the civil society, where human rightsare denied or violated in any part of the world it is bound to have a chain effect on other parts of the world and it is therefore of vital interest to the international community.

Burma’s Illicit Drug Economy

Since the ascendance of the current military regime in 1988, Burma has become one of the world’s largest suppliers of heroin. The current military regime profits from, protects and supports Burma’s illicit drug industry.

The regime allows notorious Burmese drug lords, such as Khun Sa and Lo Hsing Han, to operate as legitimate businessmen in Burma. The South East Asian Information Network (SAIN) in a 1998 report, listed five army regiments with headquarters or outposts alongside heroin refineries. It reports that bulk heroin exports from the refinery at Paletwa in north-west Burma were carried by army helicopter into Bangladesh, there being no roads for transportation. Dr. Desmond Ball, an Australian researcher, identified in 1999 three infantry battalions that, between them were maintaining six heroin refineries along the drug routes in north-eastern Burma. He also identifies senior generals that were part owners of heroin refineries at the time of his research.

Money Laundering:

Desperate for foreign currency, the Burmese military regime has created legislation that helps launder the proceeds of drugs. In levying a 40 per cent tax rate on declared assets, the regime makes no inquiry into the source of the assets. Moreover, Burma’s military junta openly allows profits from the drug trade to be channeled through military-controlled companies such as banks and the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprises. As a result of this money laundering, illicit drug profits permeate Burma’s economy.

In such an environment, foreign companies have no way to ensure their operations in Burma are clean. A prime example of this problem was the case of Wal-Mart Canada, which was found in 2000 to be importing from a clothing company in Burma owned by the notorious drug lord Lo Hsing Han.

Burma Heroin in Canada:

Canadians are not immune from the scourge of Burma’s heroin trade. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police RCMP states that most of the heroin coming into Canada originates in Burma. Meanwhile, heroin has had devastating effects on people’s lives in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Therefore, Canadian companies which support Burma’s military regime through their business there, are inevitably and ironically contributing to social problems in Canada.

In 1997, Burma was responsible for about 60 per cent of the word’s supply of heroin. Production of raw opium exceeded 2500 tonnes, or more than double the yield in 1988 when the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the forerunner of the SPDC took power. Opium poppy cultivation in Burma has also increased from some 92,300 hectares to more than 200,000 under the SPDC (Dr. Desmond Ball,”Burma and Drugs: The Regime’s Complicity in the global drug trade! ” in Asia-Pacific Magazine, No.14, 1999).

The regime has created legislation which helps launder the proceeds of drugs. The Burmese regime levies a 40 % tax rate on declared assets other than real property, but as long a! s the tax is paid, there is no inquiry into the source of the assets (US State Department, 1998). Also banks launder dubious money in exchange for a 25 % to 40% fee. In 1996, there was US $250 million of unexplained investment attracted by the scheme (The IMF and the UN Conference on Trade and Development in the Sunday Times [London] May 10, 1998).

Money laundering and the return of narcotic profits laundered elsewhere are very significant factors in the overall Burmeseeconomy and are officially sanctioned by the junta. The SPDC openly allows profits from the drug trade to be channeled into private and public enterprises through Burma’s national company, the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprises (MOGE) and the banks. (Leslie Kean and Dennis Bernstein, People of the Opiate in the Nation, Dec. 16, 1996).

A study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) cites large expenditures unaccounted for by the junta: Despite the fact that Burma’s foreign exchange reserves from 1991-1993 were only approximately $300 million, the SLORC purchased arms worth $1.2 billion during the period (The Nation, Dec. 1996).!

A Unless there is a democratically elected civilian government that can win the support of all the Burmese people, including the ethnic minorities, progress on the drug front will be impossible. (Michael Jendrzejeczyk, Director of Human Rights Watch/Asia, the New York Times, Feb.12, 1993).

A major dimension of the corruption [of the military dictatorship in Burma] is the involvement of the regime – from the most senior members of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) which rules the country, down to infantry soldiers stationed in border areas – in drug trafficking. (Dr. Desmond Ball, Burma and Drugs: The Regime’s Complicity in the global drug trade in Asia-Pacific Magazine, No.14, 1999).

# The opium-heroin trade in Burma is a sophisticated, world-wide multi-billion dollar business which requires a large infrastructure, especially for refining, transporting and protecting the product, from Burma’s borders to its neighbouring countries. (Dr. Chao-Tzang Yawnghwe, The War on Drugs and Drug Policies; paper distributed at the International Conference on Drugs, 1996).

# US anti-drug assistance to the Burmese government has failed in the past, and in the last four years Burmese authorities have made no discernible effort to improve their performance…SLORC has been part of the problem, not the solution. (Robert S. Gelbard, former US assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law-enforcement affairs, Far Eastern Economic Review, Nov.21, 1996).

The United States: We are increasingly concerned that Burma’s drug traffickers, with official encouragement, are laundering their profits through Burmese banks and companies–some of which are joint ventures with foreign businesses.It is hard to imagine a lasting solution to this region’s narcotics problem without a lasting solution to Burma’s political crisis. (Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, Jul.1997).

Britain: Burma is the largest single world producer of opium, and it has achieved that infamous position precisely because it has a government that does not act against the drug barons. It is not only a deeply repressive regime, but is also a deeply irresponsible regime in that it is one of the few governments in the world whose members are prepared to profit out of the drugs trade rather than to seek to suppress it (Robin Cook, British Foreign Secretary, South-China Morning Post, Sept.2,1998).

Thailand: Thai anti-narcotics officials have been quoted as saying that the Burmese military are actively supporting the United Wa State Army believed to be one of the main drug trafficking organizations in the Golden Triangle (The BBC, Jul 25,1999)

Burma’s Military-Controlled Economy

International investment may help open societies and bring democratic change in some countries. In Burma, however, foreign investment helps perpetuate the cruelty of a repressive unelected junta. While the majority of Burmese receive no benefit from foreign enterprise, foreign exchange allows the military to maintain its rule by force of arms.

The military regime’s own figures state that expenditure on defence since 1988 to the present had increased from 22.35 per cent to49.93 per cent. During the same period, spending on health-care and education had dropped from 4.71 per cent and 12.9 per cent to 2.53 and 6.98, respectively.

Full foreign ownership of companies operating in Burma is generally forbidden and almost all large investment in Burma is carried out through joint ventures with the military regime, notably the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH). The UMEH is owned in part (40%) by the Defense Ministry’s Directorate of Procurement, whose main function is to import armaments. The other 60% of UMEH shares is reserved for active and retired military officers, army-owned business enterprises and friendship societies, including veteran groups.

Since the ascendance of the current military regime in 1988, Burma has become one of the world’s largest suppliers of heroin. This very fact is just one of the many examples that point to the regime’s profiting, protection and support of Burma’s illicit drug industry.

The regime allows notorious Burmese drug lords, such as Khun Sa and Lo Hsing Han, to operate as legitimate businessmen in Burma. The South East Asian Information Network (SAIN) in a 1998 report, listed five army regiments with headquarters or outposts alongside heroin refineries. It reports that bulk heroin exports from the refinery at Paletwa in north-west Burma were carried by army helicopter into Bangladesh, there being no roads for transportation. Dr. Desmond Ball, an Australian researcher, identified in 1999 three infantry battalions that, between them were maintaining six heroin refineries along the drug routes in north-eastern Burma. He also identifies senior generals that were part owners of heroin refineries at the time of his research.

Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi and her democratically elected National League for Democracy have been calling for sanctions against their own country since it became obvious that foreign investment was only benefiting the military authorities and their allies. In a video smuggled out of Burma in August 1999, Aung San Suu Kyi stated that:

“We do not think that investment in our country at this time can do our country any good…Investment made at the right time in the right way could be of enormous benefit not only to the people of Burma but to thos who are investing in Burma. But that time has not yet come.”

Just as the South African anti-apartheid movement called for economic sanctions against their own country, Burma’s democracy movement is calling for an end to foreign financial support to the brutal military dictatorship.

The Situation of Women in Burma

Like all their fellow citizens, Burma’s women face the day-to-day struggle of life under military rule in Burma. But the country’s women also face particular problems and abuse on account of their gender. Apart from the general maltreatment and discrimination directed against women in their society, Burmese women and girls, especially in ethnic minority areas, are faced with the constant danger of being raped or trafficked into the sex industry.

Sexual Assault:

Women are subjected to rape and other sexual assaults in a variety of contexts; in their villages and fields; during flight; while they are serving as forced labourers or forced porters for the army; and under assorted pretexts in which soldiers abuse their authority and claim to be checking women’s documents. Women are raped by Burmese soldiers in their own homes, while they are internally displaced, and while they are on their way to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. These abuses have escalated over the past decade under because soldiers have become used to taking what they want under the current military regime which allows them to do so with impunity. (See School of Rape by Earthrights In! ternational, Convention for the Elimination of Violence Against Women Shadow Report)

Trafficking into Sex Industry:

The burgeoning sex industry in Burma and trafficking of Burmese women to Thailand and other countries also gives rise to enormous health difficulties, most notably HIV and AIDS. As well, Burmese sex workers (often coerced into the industry) in Burma, in Thailand, India and Bangladesh suffer from high rates of sexually transmitted disease and are often victims of beatings and other physical assaults.

An estimated 80,000 women from Burma are engaged in prostitution in Thailand. Along the Thai-Burma border, agents recruit women with false promises of providing them with employment or legal resident status in Thailand or force them into prostitution under threats to their lives. Many brothels are surrounded by electric fences and armed guards to avoid escape. They rarely have access to heath care or HIV education. Their rate of HIV infection is much higher than among Thai prostitutes.

Women’s Health:

Maternal motility rate in 1993 was 140 per 100,000 live births. In 1987, abortions accounted for 52 per cent of all registered maternal deaths. Though the practice is illegal in Burma, induced abortion is resorted to in the absence of knowledge and other means for family planning. Other causes of high material mortality are malaria, malnutrition,goiter, severe anemia, sexually transmitted diseases and the limited coverage of trained birth attendants in remote areas.

According to UNICEF, the national infant mortality rate in 1996 was 105 per live births, which can be compared to 33 in Vietnam, 31 in Thailand and 11 in Malaysia. One million children are reportedly malnourished. 9 to 12 percent of them severely so. The high rate of babies with birth weight below 2,300 grams is probably reflection of the high malnutrition levels among pregnant women. Under the current regime which took power in 1988, these figures have likely increased since health care has deteriorated significantly. Moreover, this data is not completely accurate because it does! not include information from Burma’s ethnic civil war areas, where health conditions are even worse, because UN agencies and international non-governmental organizations have limited access.

[1]Ivanhoe Mines, Aeroground Group Services, Cavern International Industries, East Asia Gold Corporation, First Dynasty Mines, International Bio-Recovery, Leeward Capital Corp, Marshall Macklin Monaghan, Northrock Resources, Prime Resources Management, Suzuki Canada

[2]This is because the ILO resolution responds to the Act=s allowance that a resolution from an international body, such as the United Nations, empowers such an action. AThe Governor in Council may, for the purpose of implementing a decision, resolution or recommendation of an international organization of states or association of states, o! f which Canada is a member, that calls on its members to take economic measures against a foreign state.

[3]Individual identities are not disclosed to protect their security

[4]ATotal Denial [email protected] by Earthrights International, 2000

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