Sunday, May 11, 2008

Burma thugs and corporate complicity

It should be no surprise to anyone that the murderous kleptocrats now running Burma, the ones keeping foreign aid workers at bay and confiscating the trickle of relief supplies permitted into the country, have been propped up for years by transnational corporations. It's the oil (and gas), stupid.

In a now-infamous case, the American company Unocal (now Chevron) was sued in 1996 by a number of brutalized Burmese refugees for benefiting from slave labour in Burma that was used to construct a profitable gas pipeline. Corporations like to invest in countries that have what is euphemistically called "disciplined labour." In this case, it was terrorised labour--rape, torture and murder were the instruments by which labour was coerced, and evidence presented in court showed that Unocal was perfectly well aware of it.

Needless to say, the Bush Administration intervened on Unocal's behalf. But a settlement was reached in 2005, a few months after the US Supreme Court ruled in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain that the US Alien Tort Claims Act was not restricted in scope to piracy, infringing upon the rights of ambassadors, and violating safe conduct. This 2004 judgement caused some consternation in the conservative camp.

Perhaps push has finally come to shove in Burma, in any case. The Greek colonels in 1974 and then the Argentinian military junta in 1983 (so beloved by anti-Communists that torturing political prisoners under pictures of Adolf Hitler caused no undue concern), essentially imploded after both regimes lost wars that they had foolishly started. The natural disaster of Typhoon Nargis could well have the same effect. The 500,000-strong Burmese rank-and-file military was already showing cracks last year during the suppression of street protests. The current devastation has to have affected the families of the rank-and-file military as well as the general public. It may well mark the beginning of the end for this genuinely evil regime. The question is, will it be in time?

Ramesh Thakur, a former UN Commissioner who helped to draft the "responsibility to protect" (R2P) protocol, argued last week in the Globe and Mail (subscriber wall) against intervention. If readers want to sample what passes for sophisticated thinking in UN circles these days, they should pay heed. After taking a jab or two at Bernard Kouchner, French Foreign Minister and co-founder and President of Médecins sans Frontières in a past life, Thakur writes:

The solution lies in invigorated efforts at four levels....First, in direct exchanges with the Burmese authorities. Second, in making encouraging but non-threatening resolutions and statements at the UN by the Secretary-General and presidents of the General Assembly and Security Council. Third, by the major Asian powers - by the major Asian powers -- China, India and Japan. And fourth, by the Southeast Asian neighbours of Burma, including ASEAN, the regional organization.

Good luck with that. Human Rights Watch reports that there is a massive level of foreign investment in Burma: Western countries such as the Netherlands, Russia, France, and the US cohabit pleasantly with Russia, China, Thailand, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and India, in the development of oil and gas fields. After Thakur's proposed extended set of negotiations, the Burmese population could well be reduced by famine and disease to the point that one or two planeloads of high-energy biscuits would do the trick--if the government doesn't seize them, of course.

In the meantime, Thakur tells us that if France has troops to spare, she should send them to Afghanistan. Too bad the Burmese generals aren't Muslims.

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