Malaysia: Prime Minister Visits for Business

Publisher Name: 
Inter Press Service

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.

AMP Section Name:Human Rights
  • 116 Human Rights