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Malaysia: Prime Minister Visits for Business

Inter Press Service
January 4th, 2001

PENANG, Malaysia -- Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's visit to Burma is mainly for business and not for human rights, critics here say.

Mahathir, who arrived in Burma Wednesday for a two-day working visit and then a holiday, arrived two days before a U.N. special envoy tasked to broker a dialogue between the military regime and the party it blocked from power, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

Mahathir, accompanied by 30 Malaysian delegates, was met on arrival by the country's military ruler Senior Gen Than Shwe, with whom he later held talks on the eve of Burma's independence day celebration.

But no one expects him to raise the touchy issues of human rights and political openness with Burmese leaders during his stay in the country.

Malaysia has traditionally glossed over Burma's human rights record and defended that nation in the face of international criticism and demands for foreign pressure for more openness there.

Human rights complaints against Burma have ranged from arbitrary arrests, torture, forced relocation of civilians, forced labour, official complicity in drug trafficking and smuggling of natural resources.

Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Karens have been displaced and have fled into refugee camps along the border with Thailand.

Still, local politicians urged Mahathir to push for dialogue between Burma's rulers and the opposition led by NLD leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Syed Azman Syed Ahmad, international affairs bureau chairman of Malaysia's opposition front, urged Mahathir to visit Suu Kyi ''as a gesture of concern for her situation and her untiring struggle for democracy in Burma.''

''It is high time that Malaysia and other ASEAN (Association of South-east Asian Nations) countries engage in dialogue with both the State Peace and Development Council (the Burmese government) and the NLD, and we hope that your trip can start off this new process of engagement,'' he said in an open letter to Mahathir.

Syed Azman urged Mahathir and other officials to ''to engage in dialogue with the heads of SPDC government on the importance or speeding up the process of change and to improve the situation in Burma, for the sake of the 50 million suffering Burmese people.''

Burma's military leaders have periodically cracked down on Suu Kyi's NLD ever since her party swept general elections in 1990, but was barred from taking power.

Suu Kyi herself has been restricted to her home since Sep. 22 after she tried twice to defy the military regime by travelling outside the capital.

Nine NLD leaders in all were put under confinement. Six were released on Dec. 1 but party stalwarts NLD Chairman Aung Shwe and Vice- Chairman Tin Oo remain detained. About 80 NLD supporters arrested at the same time are also believed to still be in detention.

But it is business interests rather than human rights and democracy that are on the top of the two countries' agenda.

Malaysian firms have invested 587 million U.S. dollars in 25 projects since 1988, when Burma opened up to foreign investment. Malaysia ranks as the fourth largest investor in Burma after Singapore, Britain and Thailand.

In July, 'Oil and Gas Journal Online' reported that the Petroleum Authority of Thailand (PTT) and Malaysian state oil firm Petronas were reviewing the feasibility of a plant capable of processing natural gas. The complex was supposed to be located in southern Burma, on the Daimensek coast in Mon state.

The report added that PTT and Petronas hoped to include Burmese state firms as partners in the project, although formal discussions had not yet taken place then.

Petronas is a partner in the 650 million dollar Yetagun gas field development in a consortium that includes British, Thai and Japanese oil firms.

''The government (in Burma) is bankrupt,'' said one analyst. ''They have to get foreign exchange to survive.''

Critics say the military regime is counting on the large presence of multinational corporations, especially petroleum firms, to gain legitimacy and fend off proposed international economic sanctions.

Money is also needed for Burma's military, which faces insurgency movements and dissent. Critics have long said that Burma has been exploiting its natural resources -- oil and gas, teak, tin, tungsten, copper, lead, zinc, and precious stones -- to raise funds.

Mahathir's last trip to Burma was in 1988 and since then the international community, apart from ASEAN, has largely shunned it.

Some say it is time for real dialogue to be encouraged by ASEAN, of which Burma is a member.

''It is important for ASEAN countries to voice our protests and complaints against the human rights violations in Burma to the SPDC government,'' said Syed Azman.

Instability in Burma would not only bring instability to the ASEAN region but would also jeopardise the investments of the ASEAN business community in Burma, he pointed out.

The U.N. special envoy due to arrive in Burma Friday is Razali Ismail, Malaysia's permanent envoy to the United Nations. His five-day visit will be his third since his appointment in April. Razali managed to meet Suu Kyi twice during his last visit in October.

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