As thousands of monks and others protesters remain under arrest and subject to torture in Burma, campaigners in 30 cities around the world staged a series of rallies last weekend against the bloody crackdown.
In London, around 10,000 people joined the demonstration on 6 October, with the TUC, Unison, NUJ and other unions backing the protest. Campaigners and unions have focused their demands on getting multinational firms to stop propping up the military regime and withdraw from Burma.
For the last 45 years Burma has been ruled by a military dictatorship with a savage reputation for brutality. In 1962 a military coup inaugurated “the Burmese Way to Socialism” — a military dictatorship which nationalised much of the economy and formed a one-party state.
In 1988 thousands of people are killed after anti-government protests and general strikes in Rangoon and across the country. Although the National League for Democracy (NLD) led Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide election victory in 1990, the generals disregarded the result and continued with military rule.
At the same time the military launched a big push for foreign investment and found many multinationals willing to look away from human rights abuses if a profit could be made. And the military used the revenue gained to build up a massive army, spending between a third and a half of its budget on its armed forces during the 1990s.
Several multinationals have well-documented business links to Burma, including Caterpillar (USA), China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC), China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), Daewoo International Corporation (Korea), Siemens (Germany), Gas Authority of India (GAIL), GlaxoSmithKline (UK), Hyundai (Korea), ONGC Videsh Ltd (India), Swift (Belgium), and TOTAL (France). The ITUC international union federation is currently investigating several hundred other companies for links to Burma.
The Chinese, Indian, Thai and Japanese governments all have strong links with the regime. China is Burma’s largest supplier of imports and its third-largest export market. China supplied rocket launchers, fighter aircraft and guided-missile attack craft in the 1990s.
One of the difficulties with demands for economic sanctions on Burma is that large sections of Asian capital, as well as some European firms have filled the breach after much of US capital withdrew in the 1990s.
According to a new report by the Burma Campaign UK, the TOTAL multinational is the largest European corporate funder of the regime.
Although best known as a French oil company, TOTAL also has substantial interests in the UK. It is the fourth-largest oil company in terms of North Sea production and reserves. It has two refineries, at Milford Haven and Killingholme. It operates the St Fergus Gas Terminal in Scotland, which processes around 15% of the UK’s daily gas requirements from some 20 fields.
TOTAL’s chemical subsidiary, ATOFINA UK, is one of the largest suppliers of plastics materials in the UK and a major supplier of chemicals for use in industry. Its brands include Bostik Findley — now the largest adhesives and sealants company in the UK, Spontex cleaning products and Mapa professional cleaning products. And another subsidiary, TOTAL BUTLER, is one of the largest suppliers of domestic fuel oil in the UK. It also supplies oil to schools, hospitals and commercial businesses.
TOTAL has a big stake in Burma. For example it is a partner in the Yadana gas project. Arms sales closely are linked to TOTAL’s gas project. The regime used its first down payment for gas exports to buy 10 MIG jets from Russia. TOTAL’s presence in Burma has influenced French, European Union and British foreign policy on Burma, with France vetoing effective EU sanctions in order to protect TOTAL.
Horrific human rights abuses have been committed in the region of TOTAL’s gas pipeline by the security forces. In 1991, to “secure” the area for TOTAL and other foreign oil companies, the entire pipeline region was militarised. Thousands of troops renowned for their extreme brutality were drafted into the area to police farmers, plantation workers and fishing communities. In all, at least 16 battalions have either been stationed in the area or patrolled the pipeline region at one time or another since 1991.
The Yadana project has benefited from the heavy use of forced labour by Burmese people, including children. There are countless reports of Burmese soldiers in the pipeline region conscripting thousands of civilians to perform forced labour for the benefit of the pipeline.
As onshore work commenced, the military directed the construction of service roads and helipads, as well as their own camps and barracks, through the use of forced labour.
Typically the army called on village leaders to send forced labourers on a rotational basis. Each group works for one to two weeks leaving only when a replacement group arrives. Hundreds of acres of land have been cleared, bamboo and trees cut down, stumps dug out and ground levelled. Villagers have dug wells and trenches, built fences, cut thatch and made posts and boards to build barracks, working through the heat of the day under threat of punishment and ill treatment.
All trade unions that existed before the present military regime came to power have been disbanded. Instead the military has a labour front, the Union Solidarity and Development Association. Organisations such as the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma (FTUB), founded in 1991 have to function underground and its members face constant threat of repression and reprisal, including detention, torture and criminal prosecution. It maintains structures both inside and outside the country — for example among the 1.5 million Burmese migrants working in Thailand.
Despite the repression, some strikes have taken place. In May last year over 900 workers at Hae Wae Garment in Rangoon went on strike to demand better conditions of work and increased salaries. When workers demanded a meeting to press their demands, factory management refused — and only allowed a hand-picked group to meet with the authorities.
All of them were forced to sign a written statement that indicated that there were no problems at the factory. Workers were compelled to return to work without any improvement in conditions and faced a climate of intimidation in the factory in subsequent weeks. A detachment of police was posted in the factory to prevent further unrest.
Whilst it is understandable to raise demands for a boycott of the regime and for capital to stop profiting from the misery of Burmese people, the real task is to help build a workers’ opposition to the regime. Workers were prominent in 1988 and have also shown their power against the military in other countries in the region, such as Thailand. Socialists should do everything possible to support the Burmese workers and their organisations to develop into an independent opposition pole.