Stubborn Survivor; despite U.S. Sanctions, Southeast Asia's Outcast Is Stumbling along. but Its Neighbors Are Ambivalent

Article excerpt

Byline: Joe Cochrane

Singapore foreign minister George Yeo is not known for talking tough on Burma. Then again, neither are any other Southeast Asia government officials when the region's pariah state comes up. But times are changing. Embarrassed by the Burmese military junta's continued oppression of its democratic opposition, and fearful that it will affect ties with the United States and Europe, regional leaders are suddenly speaking out. "Some hard messages may have to be put across" to the generals, Yeo told his Parliament on March 5. Burma bashing could reach new heights this month when lawmakers from five regional countries will meet in Singapore to discuss suspending Burma's membership for one year in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. Burma is scheduled to take over the group's rotating chairmanship in 2006. "Yeo's statement brought the cat out of the bag," one of the meeting's organizers told NEWSWEEK.

But will it matter, as long as many of ASEAN's 10 member nations, along with China and India, keep doing business with Rangoon? Already boxed in since 1997 by U.S. sanctions, and persona non grata in Europe, junta leaders may well shrug off further attempts at isolation. And why not? The generals of Burma, also known as Myanmar, have a stranglehold on power--and on the most lucrative sectors of the country's economy. Official statistics are pure fiction, but outside estimates of Burma's 2004 GDP growth range from a mere 0.5 percent to 5 percent. The reality is that Burma's economy is stumbling along. Commodities such as natural gas, wood and minerals are being shipped to eager markets in China, India and Thailand, among others. Agricultural production still accounts for 52 percent of Burma's formal economy, and its informal economy, believed to be twice as large, provides other ways--such as smuggling narcotics--for the country's 50 million people to squeak by.

Where the Bush administration sees an "outpost of tyranny," Burma's neighbors see a lucrative trading post. Beans and pulses feed Bangladeshis and Indians; offshore gas fields supply Thailand with up to 30 percent of its needs. Companies from at least five ASEAN countries have business interests in Burma. The willingness of Asian countries to forgo moralizing in favor of commerce, along with Rangoon's switch from U.S. dollars to euros to do business, have made American diplomatic pressure largely moot. Last year China gave Burma $200 million in aid, and is its sole supplier of military hardware. One Rangoon-based development worker says the West has no leverage: "The generals don't care because they are looking for regional legitimacy, and they have it with China and India."

International condemnation of Burma stems from 1990, when pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, or NLD, won national elections in a landslide, but the junta refused to relinquish power and rounded up opposition figures. Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate, has spent more than half of the last 14 years under house arrest. …