Burma: Cyclone disaster

Wealth and privilege put before aid

The appalling effects of the cyclone which hit the vast Irrawaddy river delta, have shocked people all over the world. But this has been compounded by the total inadequacy of the military regime in helping the victims. The devastation, deaths and injuries are probably greater than that following the tsunami around the Indian ocean in 2004.

As many as 100,000 people may have died so far, with a further 1.5 million at risk. Workers and peasants were already struggling to survive under the deprivation and repression of the military regime. And now, in the cyclone hit areas, millions are also suffering from lack of shelter, starvation and the spread of disease.

This country was known as the ‘rice bowl’, but it is the main rice growing areas that have now been hit. It was mentioned on the British TV programme Newsnight that some of the oil and gas rigs in the Andaman sea might also have been damaged by the cyclone, which could be pre-occupying the military generals.

These generals have been mainly financed by their exploitation of natural gas fields and other mineral resources. Neighbouring Thailand imported $2.7 billion worth of natural gas from Burma last year, which amounted to 45% of the total exports of Burma, and Thai investment in Burma amounted to $1.34 billion and is rising.

Writing in the Far East Economic Review prior to the cyclone, human-rights activist Benedict Rogers pointed out that the Thai prime minister, after signing a new investment deal with the Burmese generals in March, described them as “good Buddhists” because they “meditated”, despite their slaughter of Buddhist monks last September.

In February, the leader of the Karen National Union, the largest Burmese armed ethnic group, was assassinated in Thailand on the orders of the Burmese regime, probably with a nod from the Thai authorities. Then in March, Thai police raided 14 Karen organisations in exile in Thailand.

So the Thai government has ‘improving relations’ with the Burmese generals and is now being looked to by western governments to convince the generals – who are strenuously resisting outside intervention – to allow western charity workers to organise the distribution of the necessities and services desperately needed.

It is interesting to note that the Thai foreign minister said on Newsnight that the Burmese generals are worried about help from the west following the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Last September, one of the Burmese government’s ‘commentaries’ condemned “global powers who practice hegemonism”, and the Burmese recent so-called new constitution, as well as being designed to preserve the repressive military dictatorship, includes clauses prohibiting the stationing of foreign troops in Burma.

Governments around the world condemn the lack of democracy of the Burmese regime, but it is not the interests of the Burmese people that concern them, but the way in which the Burmese generals try to limit the influence and exploitation of the world imperialist powers in order to defend their own wealth and privileges. And while these governments are calling on their own workers – who are being hit by the credit crunch – to donate for cyclone relief, they are appeasing the Burmese regime.

Russia is providing nuclear training, technology, equipment and arms. India continues to invest, Japan has a 19.3% stake in the Yetagun natural gas field and other major projects, while Singapore is the favourite place for the generals to bank, invest, shop, get medical care, educate their children and do their arms deals.


Big businesses in Britain, the US and France also invest in Burma, but it is China that is the main economic backer of the Burmese generals, and the country that gives them access to the Indian Ocean.

Prior to the cyclone, the general secretary of the Burma Federation of Trade Unions commented: “When the regime was on its knees in 1998 the oil companies Chevron and Total brought it back on its feet. It’s the same situation now – politically, the regime is in a bad way. But it is Chevron’s and Total’s money that is allowing them to creep along. So it’s corporate policy that is supporting the regime, and corporate policy that is hampering governments from going after Burma on all fronts.”

It is the task of the Burmese people to remove their repressive regime; they have shown many times, particularly in 1988 and last year, their ability and willingness to fight to overcome all obstacles to improve their lot. And it is clear that they can only rely on workers’ action and help internationally, and not the ‘help’ of capitalist governments.

Following the devastation of the cyclone, while all genuine attempts to get supplies of basic necessities to those who need them are urgent, it is also necessary to recognise, as a Radio 5 Live phone caller pointed out: “The resilience and resourcefulness of the Burmese people to work as a community to help each other and themselves”. This is already evident two weeks after the cyclone and will be the case in changing the regime.

Profits not human rights

THE Yadana oil and natural gas pipeline stretches across Burma from the Gulf of Andaman to Thailand. The pipeline, whose partners are Total and Chevron, involved mass forced labour and other human rights abuses, committed by the army on behalf of the oil companies.

During last year’s pro-democracy protests, led by Buddhist monks and brutally suppressed by Burma’s generals, a spokesperson for Thailand’s PTTEP, a partner in Total’s Yadana project, said: “It is business as usual. I don’t see any impact in the near future” from the unrest. “When we have a contract with the government, it doesn’t really matter who the government is.”

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May 2008