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Burma Sanctions Effort Blunted By China, India

Burma Sanctions Effort Blunted By China, India

by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Burma has boasted its two "very good neighbors," China and India, will blunt U.S.-led sanctions amid attempts in Washington for tightening boycotts to support detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Burma's leader General Than Shwe, and Foreign Minister Win Aung, personally laid the ground-work for close, lucrative cooperation with the governments and two billion people in China and India.

Burma is wedged between the two giants and boasts a coveted, ship-friendly coast along the Bay of Bengal -- stretching from Bangladesh to Thailand.

"There is no evidence we are worried about sanctions. Not that we want them, but we are not afraid of them either because we have lived for 26 years on our own before, and we have very good neighbors around us and we can simply trade and exchange relations with our close, good neighbors," Kyaw Win, Burma's ambassador to Britain, said on Thursday (June 5).

"We have the two largest countries of the world on either side who are happily trading and exchanging all kinds of technical, transportation, security measures [with Burma] and we are living in harmony with all of them," the envoy told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

The Washington-based Free Burma Coalition (FBC), meanwhile, circulated a list of quotes by several influential U.S. Congress members who vowed during the past few days to pulverize Burma's economy with tighter sanctions.

"It is time for regime change in Burma," Senate majority whip, Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), told Congress.

"The tough sanctions legislation I am introducing...sends a clear signal that Burma's human rights violators will be punished severely," said Representative Tom Lantos (D-California).

They joined others in Congress who hope to increase current sanctions to ban all Burma's exports to the United States, deny U.S. visas to a wider range of Burmese officials and freeze the regime's money and property overseas, according to the FBC.

China, however, is Burma's closest ally.

Much of northern Burma, in and around Mandalay, allows Chinese migrants to live and invest there while using China's yuan currency instead of Burma's much weaker kyat.

Gen. Than Shwe, in a rare trip abroad, spent six days in China in January discussing Chinese financial and military aid.

China arms and trains much of Burma's military. Burma depended on China for more than 40 Chengdu F-7M and Nanchang A-5C warplanes before Russia sold MiG-29 jet fighters to Burma in 2001.

Burma and China also share a similar strategy in dealing with dissent. Both hung tough after unleashing bloody military crackdowns which mirrored each other almost one year apart: Beijing's infamous June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre was preceded by Rangoon's August 8, 1988 pro-Suu Kyi demonstrations.

Unrelated -- except for student-led passions for greater freedom -- the twin uprisings were brutally crushed with similar military force, leaving more than 1,000 people dead in both capitals.

China rapidly increased its interest in Burma during the past decade, prompting fear in India of creeping Chinese influence. China trounced India in a 1962 war.

Exploiting New Delhi's lingering nervousness over China's occupation of Tibet and other Himalayan mountain high ground, Burma spent the past few years cozying up to India, which is also vulnerable along its rebel-torn northeast.

Fighting in India's Nagaland has killed more than 100,000 people on all sides during the past 50 years. Christian and animist minority ethnic Naga guerrillas want a return to independence free from India's control.

Naga guerrillas maintain camps across the frontier in Burma -- a thorn which India hopes to yank with Rangoon's cooperation.

Within a week of Gen. Than Shwe's return home from China, Burmese Foreign Minister Win Aung flew to India on a five-day trip.

India had been eyeing construction of a modern highway linking mountainous Nagaland to Burma's Mandalay and Rangoon and on to Thailand's prosperous capital, Bangkok, with expectations it will enable New Delhi to commercialize Nagaland and other isolated Indian states which also suffer insurgencies, poverty and neglect.

India earlier allowed Ms. Suu Kyi to live in exile on Indian soil and still voices support for an evolution to democracy in Burma.

The worsening insurgency in and around Nagaland and a rising emphasis on military strength within the Indian government, however, inspired New Delhi's shift toward friendlier ties with Rangoon in recent years.

While much of the world was shunning Burma, India allowed the opening of a Burmese consulate in Calcutta in 2002 to ease relations with Rangoon and speed commerce between the two ports.

Singapore and Thailand also funnel a relatively large amount of investment cash into Burma and purchase its natural resources and other exports, while helping to buoy the dictatorship and gloss over its conflicts with the wider world.

Ms. Suu Kyi and her supporters, meanwhile, have received millions of dollars from foreign donors.

In the most recent flash of cash, Virginia-based Freedom Forum foundation gave one million U.S. dollars to Ms. Suu Kyi in February as a "personal gift" because of "her free-spirited, non-violent struggle for human rights and democracy."

Burmese dissidents based in Thailand, the United States and elsewhere also receive aid from non-governmental organizations, volunteers and other sources to fund their rival political movements, publications, broadcasts and other activity.

They are rallying for the regime to transfer power to Ms. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party which won a suppressed 1990 election victory.

** -ENDS-**

- Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is

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