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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Snuffing the lamp of dharma

June 25, 2009

Claude Arpi

The Pioneer

June 24, 2009


Aung San Suu Kyi has just spent her 64th birthday in Burma’s infamous Insein Prison. She has been charged with ‘violating’ the terms of her house arrest. If found guilty, she faces a long term in jail. But nobody is willing to take on the junta as everybody wants to cut a deal for Burmese oil and gas


Aung San Suu Kyi spent her 64th birthday in jail. Her previous birthdays in recent years have not been much different — the Burmese democracy icon has been under house arrest for quite some time.


On June 19, her lawyer Nyan Win sent a chocolate cake, an apple cake, three bouquets of orchids and 50 lunch boxes of biryani to Rangoon’s infamous Insein Prison, hoping that the Nobel Laureate would be able to share these with her jailors. Mr Win Naing, a senior member of her National League for Democracy, told mediapersons: “She will invite doctors who care for her, some guards and others to her party.”


Meanwhile, many celebrities have raised their voices in her support. Hollywood stars Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Madonna, footballer David Beckham and some Nobel Laureates have asked the military junta to release Aung San Suu Kyi.


Beatle Paul McCartney was one of the thousands who wrote a 64-word text for her: “Aung San Suu Kyi is an inspiration to her country and the rest of the world. I truly admire her infallible resolve and her determination to stand up for what she believes in. It is vital that Aung San Suu Kyi is released so that she can govern the people who elected her and give Burma back the freedom we all take for granted.”


US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that she would raise the Burmese leader’s case with the Association of South-East Asian Nations.


As she was due to be released in May after nearly 20 years of being forced to remain incommunicado, Aung San Suu Kyi was charged with breaching the terms of her house arrest when an American national, John Yettaw, swam to her lakeside house and stayed two nights at her home.


If found guilty, she faces up to five years in prison. The trial has mostly been conducted in camera and mediapersons were prevented from speaking to her lawyers.


Mr Leandro Despouy, UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, says: “So far, the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi and her aides has been marred by flagrant violations of substantive and procedural rights”.


The UN working group on arbitrary detention had already issued an advisory ruling a year ago that the Nobel Laureate’s continued house arrest was arbitrary. Reading all this, one does not understand why the world is unable to make the junta relent and release the courageous leader.


Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Burma — or Myanmar, as the junta calls India’s neighbour — has oil and gas. This makes a difference.


When the US brought sanctions against the junta in 1997, the US Executive Order permitted the American energy company Unocal to remain in the country. Unocal was subsequently purchased by Chevron which is still very much involved in doing business with Burma and its junta.


It was reported by The Financial Times that a document prepared by the International Monetary Fund indicted the junta which used an accounting trick to keep $ 3.5 billion from the proceeds of the Unocal/Chevron natural gas pipeline off its account books. The finger immediately pointed towards the Generals: Had they simply pocketed the money or kept it in some tax haven for bad days. The Financial Times alleged that that the ‘earnings’ of the junta were equivalent to 57 per cent of Burma’s Budget. One now understands better the reluctance of the Generals to restore democracy.


Will US President Barack Obama, who has condemned the junta for arresting Aung San Suu Kyi, look into the oil and gas deals of American companies? Probably not!


But the Americans are not the only ones involved in doing business with the junta. The French company Total is also present there. While glamourous Bernard Koucher, the French Foreign Minister, writes Op-Eds in The New York Times castigating the junta, business continues as usual. In a June 12 Op-Ed article, Mr Kouchner wrote: “Freedom from fear resounds more than ever as a call for help at a time when the Burmese junta has initiated proceedings against her that are as absurd as they are unjustified. We are not fooled.”


Sounds good, doesn’t it? He continues: “The thoughts of all those who admire and support her are with the ‘Lady of Yangon’, a woman full of dignity and finesse, energy and calm, intelligence and compassion.”


In 2003, the same Bernard Kouchner was commissioned by Total (as an independent consultant) to write a report on the company’s involvement in Burma. He had suggested that Total need not leave the country, but “must come out clearly in favour of democracy”. Since then, Total has been very much involved with the oil and gas business in Burma.


Herein lies the hypocrisy. It is why there is little chance of any Western (or Asian) pressure succeeding in getting Aung San Suu Kyi released.


As prosaically mentioned on Total’s Website: “Unfortunately, the world’s oil and gas reserves are not necessarily located in democracies, as a glance at the map shows.”


Mr Christophe de Margerie, Total’s CEO, gave his group’s view in an article published by the French newspaper Le Monde on June 1: “We have heard your heartfelt cry and share your distress over the imprisonment in Rangoon of Ms Aung San Suu Kyi. I have met her twice, and believe me when I say that her plight concerns me personally … We use our ‘influence’ whenever we can, but it is limited in Burma.”


And then he adds: “We can say without exaggeration that if Total were to withdraw ... the companies that would rush to take our place would be far less concerned with upholding human rights and ensuring decent working conditions for employees. Their presence would in all likelihood increase, rather than shrink, the regime’s revenues.”


It clearly means: “If we go, China will come; they are worse than us.” Though this position is totally amoral, it makes a point. In any case, China is already there. Beijing has begun laying a gigantic 1,100 km long gas and oil pipeline to Burma last September. The pipeline will reduce the transport route by 1,200 km as compared to shipping. It will also reduce China’s reliance on the Straits of Malacca importing oil.


It is only one of the hundreds of projects (such as, construction of hydroelectric dams) in which China is involved in Burma. One understands the clout of the Middle Kingdom.


Where is India in this picture?


In 2007, India lost to China a 30-year gas concession from the junta. India will keep loosing to China; its diplomacy lacks teeth. At the same time, India’s foreign policy has lost its moral foundation.


Aung San Suu Kyi’s family was close to the Nehru-Gandhi family. When Aung San Suu Kyi’s father was assassinated, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote: “I mourn Aung San, friend and comrade, who even in his youth had become the architect of Burmese freedom.” Young Suu Kyi was then two years old.


A few years later, in the early-1960s, her mother Daw Khin Kyi was appointed Burma’s Ambassador to India. Aung San Suu Kyi, then 15 years old and with long thick plaits, joined Lady Sri Ram College in Delhi. She knew Mrs Indira Gandhi and her sons well.


Today, everybody has forgotten her in the hope of getting a few drops of oil. And what about her class mates at Lady Sri Ram College? Today, several of them are in positions of power and influence, but they have also forgotten her.


Such is the tragedy of a world running on oil, not dharma.

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