Fri, Oct 05, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Look who does deals with the junta

Western interests in Myanmar contribute to the oppression of its people. Let's put pressure on the companies responsible

By George Monbiot  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

China has become the world's excuse for inaction. If there is anything that a government or a business does not want to do, it invokes the Yellow Peril. Raise the minimum wage to US$12 an hour? Not when the Chinese are paid US$12 a year. Cap working time at 48 hours a week? The Chinese are working 48 hours a day. Cut greenhouse gas emissions? The Chinese are building a new power station every nanosecond.

China has become our looking-glass bogeyman: If you behave well, the bogeyman will get you.

As we saw during US President George W. Bush's climate pantomime last week, China the excuse is not the same place as China the country. Bush insists that the US cannot accept mandatory carbon cuts, because China and India would reject them. But while he stuck to his voluntary approach, China and India called for mandatory cuts.

"China" is a projection of the West's worst practices.

I mention this because the Western companies still trading with Myanmar use it as their first and last defense. If we withdraw, they insist, China will fill the gap. It is true that the Chinese government has offered the Burmese generals political protection in return for cheap resources.

In January, for example, China vetoed a UN resolution condemning the junta's human rights record. Three days later it was given lucrative gas concessions in the Bay of Bengal. It is also true that the Chinese government has no interest in promoting democracy abroad. But the more the Burmese junta must rely on a single source of investment and protection, the more vulnerable it becomes. China is not intractable. If Western governments boycotted the Beijing Olympics, it would precipitate the biggest political crisis in that country since 1989.

The businesses still working in Myanmar are having to scrape the barrel of excuses. Even former British prime minister Tony Blair, that bundle of corporate interests in human form, said: "We do not believe that trade is appropriate when the regime continues to suppress the basic human rights of its people."

Explaining his company's decision to pull out of the country, the chief executive officer of Reebok noted that "it's impossible to conduct business in Burma without supporting this regime. In fact, the junta's core funding derives from foreign investment and trade."

As the junta either controls or takes a cut from most of the economy, and as almost half the tax foreign business generates is used to buy arms, any company working in Myanmar is helping to oppress the people.

The travel firms Asean Explorer and Pettitts, which take British tourists round the country in defiance of Aung San Suu Kyi's pleas, both refused to comment when I rang them, then slammed down the phone. Aquatic, a British company that provides services for gas and oil firms, was more polite, but still refused to talk. The tourism companies Audley Travel and Andrew Brock Travel promised to phone me back but failed to do so. But aside from invoking the Chinese bogeyman, each of the others I talked to produced a different justification.

The spokeswoman for Orient Express, a travel company that runs a cruiser on the Irrawaddy river and a hotel in Rangoon, told me that "tourism can be a catalyst for change."

Given that tourism has continued throughout the junta's rule, I asked how effective that catalyst has been.

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