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Why is Thailand responsible for continued dictatorship, prolong suffering and the repeated bloodshed in Burma!

Why Thailand:

Energy for Thailand, Tragedy for Burma
Sat, 2007-12-15 02:57

By Sann Aung

Looming Humanitarian Crisis in Burma

On October 4, 2007, Mr.Gambari, UN Special Envoy to Burma, made a report to the UN Security Council after his trip to Burma wherein he states:-

“It is clear, however, that the demonstrations over the past few weeks are for the most part the expression of deep and widespread discontent about socio-economic conditions in the country. General vulnerability in Myanmar is defined by accelerating impoverishment and the growing inability of the social service structures to address the basic needs of the general population. As an illustration, a UNDP household living conditions assessment in 2004-2005 noted that one-third of Myanmar's people live below the poverty line and that 90 percent of the people were spending less than $300 per year. At the time of the study, UNDP predicted that a 10 percent rise in prices could push another third of the country below the poverty line. Since then, the price of fuel has been increased twice, and significant levels of inflation have driven prices up considerably for basic food items and commodities. The overall poverty level is also indicated by the household budget-share of food consumption, which on average is as high as 69 percent."

According to the reports of UN agencies and other International NGOs in 2006, 75% of people lived below the poverty line, one-third of Burma's children were moderately malnourished (half at the border), only half of the children could join the primary school and only one third could go to secondary school. Prevalence rate of HIV, Malaria, Tuberculosis and Infant Mortality rate, Maternal Mortality rate were one of the highest in Asia and the world. Moreover, SPDC has the largest number of forcibly conscripted child soldiers in the world. It is estimated to be 70,000 out of 350000 troops.

Main Expenses of the Military Regime

The United Nations and International NGOs have warned that Burma is an emerging humanitarian crisis. However, the generals have not only refused to address serious socioeconomic issues, they have imposed stricter rules on International NGOs and UN agencies which are providing the much-needed humanitarian assistance.

According to the same sources, in 2004, the regime only spent 22,000, 6000 and 300, 000 US dollars for HIV/AIDs, Filariasis and Tuberculosis programs respectively. Here, it is important to note the prevalence of those diseases in Burma. It is estimated that up to 600,000 people are infected with HIV; up to two million infected with Filariasia; and 40% of the population of more than 50 million with Tuberculosis. Every year, the regime spends $1.10 per citizen on education and 40¢ on healthcare, compared to $400 for each soldier.

Since late 2005, the ICRC has been prevented from visiting prisons and due to the restrictions it has closed down three out of five field offices. Many International NGOs have already withdrawn from Burma as they are unable to operate effectively.

On the other hand, the regime spends generously for stronger control of power and grandiose luxurious programs for itself. In 2005, it bought MIG 29 fighters from Russia worth hundreds of millions of dollars, armored personnel carriers from Ukraine, military hardware from China and India. It built the administrative capitol near Pyinmana which cost billions of dollars. In March 2006, salaries of civil servants, especially army personnel were increased 10 times, aiming to get more loyalty. In 2007 May, military regime signed an agreement to buy a nuclear reactor (estimated cost of half a billion dollar).

Main Sources of Regime's Income

According to the figures issued by CSO (Central Statistics Organisation) of the regime, in 2006, total foreign trade was 8 billion USD and out of which 6.3 billion was with neighbours. Thailand led with 2.7 billion USD. the important fact is that Thailand paid 2.2 billion for purchase of gas. Second biggest trader was China with 1.5 billion USD but import from China was 1.2 billion US dollars which was much higher than export to China worth only 300 million US dollars.

The figures from CSO also mentioned that regime's main exports were led by 2200 million US dollar from gas sale to Thailand and 500 million from timber, mostly to India and China followed by 300 million each from gems and garments, 250 million each from fish and pulses and 160 million from tourism. So, we can say that in terms of trade, Thailand is the main financier of the military regime.

Here, it is very interesting to note that the regime did not allow the people to taste a bit of its fortune. It got at least one billion and two billion US dollars from gas sale to Thailand in 2005 and 2006 respectively. But, in late 2005, it increased the price of gas and petrol nine fold. Ignoring the people's hardships (at the brink of subsistence level) in 2006 August it again increased the price of gas five fold and petrol two fold to high which sparked off the monk's peaceful demonstrations in September. Then they brutally cracked down on the most peaceful and spontaneous demonstration by the noble and prestigious pillar of Burmese society with their lethal weapons and fire power.

In terms of projected investment of 14 billion US dollars up until the end of 2006, mostly in the energy sector, Thailand leads with 7.5 billion US dollars including 6 billions for Salween Dam, followed by Singapore, UK and Malaysia with 1.6 billion, 1.5 billion and 700 million respectively.

Even after the brutal crackdown on the peaceful demonstrations of the monks, India, China, Malaysia and Thailand made agreements or announcements to invest more in Burma. Please note that Thailand is the only Buddhist country among these four. The threat to Buddhism and the slaughter of Buddhist monks has not posed a hindrance to the Thai companies. Buddhist Thais lead the businesses to continue their trade dealings with those whose hands are bloodied by the killing of Buddhist monks.

The people of Burma have been suffering much due to these investments and trade. Impact on the Burmese is threefold:-

* First, trade and investment, especially in logging, mining, gas and dams provide income for the military regime to build up its military and linger on as rulers and dictators. They buy arms with the income. They kill their own people and monks with these arms.

* Second, the regime usually makes sure that the area for concessions and projects are safe from the armed groups by undergoing military offensives. In these offensives, they target not only the armed rebels, but also the civilians (consisting mainly of children and women). These military offensives are accompanied by severe and systematic abuses including forced labor, forced relocation, land confiscations, rapes, tortures, conscription of child soldiers, human trafficking and so on.

* Third, the military orders the people to move to designated areas without providing any assistance to maintain their livelihood. This creates massive influx of refugees to the borders and neighboring countries including Thailand while many seek refuge in the jungles. People are forced to work and earn a living by hook or by crook.

According to Thai Burma Border Consortium and other NGOs, at the end of 2006, it is estimated that of the 600000 to 1 million internally displaced persons, 500000 are on the eastern border and among them 80000 were newly displaced in 2006 of which 100000 were hiding in the jungle.

When Burma joined ASEAN in 1997, there were only 210,000 Burmese refugees throughout the region.

Now, there are estimated refugees of over 700,000 in neighboring countries and about two million migrants in Thailand alone.

After so much suffering and blood shed, the heartfelt request from the Burmese people is that there be no more trade and investment in these sectors of contract farming, timber, gas, gems, mine and dams which mainly contribute to further sufferings and abuses and displacement. This is the time for the international community and Thailand to stop funding the military regime.

We understand that a solution to Burma's problems has to be arrived at by the people of Burma. But it can be accomplished only with assistance from the international community, especially the neighbors including Thailand.

Sann Aung is an exile Member of Parliament from Burma. He is also a cabinet member of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma which was officially formed in Manerplaw near Thai-Burma border on 18 December 1990. He is actively struggling for democratization in Burma against the military junta.

- Asian Tribune -

The Burma Connection

October 13, 2007; Page A1

MYAWADDY, Myanmar -- Shortly after dawn six days a week, scores of young women scramble down a muddy track north of this border town and clamber aboard metal boats for a short trip across the Moei River, the narrow, cocoa-brown boundary between Myanmar and Thailand.

The women, victims of the economic ruin visited on this country by the world's most enduring military dictatorship, are on their way to work in a factory on the opposite riverbank in Thailand. In the late afternoon, they cross back to Myanmar.

The commute serves a global textile industry driven by powerful forces. One is the misery of the nation formerly known as Burma, home to legions desperate for work. Another is America's appetite for low-cost lingerie.

The women work at Top Form Brassiere (Mae Sot) Co., a unit of a Hong Kong-listed company, Top Form International Ltd. Most of the six million bras it will sew at its plant along the Moei River this year will end up in U.S. stores under names like Maidenform and Vanity Fair.

Andrew Higgins
In the early morning, Buddhist monks go out on the streets of Mae Sot, Thailand, to collect alms and say prayers.

The labels say "Made in Thailand." The workers, though, come mostly from Myanmar.

"There is nothing over there for them," says Michael Lurer, boss of the Top Form factory. The 32-year-old American argues that his jobs, providing take-home pay of about $3 a day, offer an opportunity for the hungry from Myanmar. "They have no food, no income, no nothing," he says, standing outside his riverside plant, a few miles from the Thai town of Mae Sot.

Debate over globalization, particularly over locating production in impoverished lands, has raged for years. Fans say it brings economic opportunity and development. Critics say it drives down wages world-wide and encourages exploitation.

Isolated Myanmar, where military rulers last month crushed peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks, offers an especially raw example of the border-crossing pressures and dilemmas unleashed by international trade.

Globalization is reaching into the most remote and politically toxic nooks and crannies of the world economy. U.S. and European sanctions stop most Western companies from setting up shop in Myanmar. But the long arm of trade gets around the barriers in places like this border zone, by sucking labor into neighboring countries.

Myanmar also poses an ethical conundrum for Westerners concerned about the role multinationals may play in propping up rogue regimes. Myanmar is such an economic wasteland that many of its roughly 56 million people lust for jobs few others want to do. Cost-conscious factory bosses across the border, while acting simply out of self-interest, end up providing jobs that both the people of Myanmar and its military government need.

The former British colony was once the world's largest rice exporter, with a promising economy. The military took power in 1962 and launched a self-reliance drive, seizing businesses and booting out Indian businesspeople.

Military rulers in the late 1980s began to court foreign investment and trade, which developed with Asian neighbors, but repressive policies continued to stymie relations with the West. In recent years, although surging energy prices boosted Myanmar's revenue from natural gas, the regime blew a large chunk of its cash on building a new capital and on fuel subsidies.

Here in Myawaddy, a big frontier town, shops sell local garlic and other produce, but are otherwise stocked almost entirely with goods from Thailand and China. Myawaddy has only a handful of paved roads and few cars. Electricity is erratic. Jobs are scarcer still.

The main employer, a big garment factory, shut down several years ago as orders dried up, in part because of U.S. and European sanctions. The biggest enterprise now is a distillery, Grand Royal Whisky, which churns out rot-gut booze that sells for $1 a bottle. Smuggling across the river is the principal growth industry.

The Moei is lined with small jetties, from which boats -- for a small fee -- carry people and goods between Thailand and Myanmar.

Myanmar is "rotting like a dead fish," says Saw Sei, a penniless 39-year-old who last week walked across Friendship Bridge from Myawaddy to the Thai town of Mae Sot. To start what he hopes will be a new life, he borrowed the equivalent of $15 from friends -- at 10% monthly interest -- and says he'll take any job in Thailand that pays $1.50 a day or more.

Myawaddy was quiet during the protests in Myanmar's two largest cities, Yangon and Mandalay, and the junta's crackdown on them. Still, security agents monitor local monasteries and tail visitors through the town's potholed backstreets.

Myanmar's economic desperation, which deepened in August with boosts in the price of motor fuel and cooking gas, was a catalyst for the protests. It has driven at least 100,000, and possibly two or three times this number, to seek work over the border in and around Mae Sot. In all, more than two million people from Myanmar are thought to work in Thailand, though only a quarter of that number have Thai work papers.

The relatively fortunate get jobs in a few factories like Top Form, which says it registers all of its migrant workers and pays the minimum daily wage set by regional authorities: 147 baht, around $4.30. Mr. Lurer says he employs 1,450 people, mostly women from Myanmar. The factory is clean and well-ventilated. It has a staff nurse and works with a local hospital.

Some workers complain that they have to pay a third of their wages for food and lodging on the premises, whether needed or not. Top Form says it is required to provide lodging for migrant workers, and that the money goes to an outside owner of the dormitory. Beds are in a ramshackle temporary shelter made of metal sheets until builders finish a big new dorm.

Mr. Lurer says employees are supposed to sleep on the premises. Many do. But, he says, he can't stop some crossing the river to Myanmar. Unlike many factories, which keep staff virtually imprisoned, "We're not going to lock the gates," he says.

Most Burmese, as everyone still calls them, who cross the river for jobs toil illegally for a fraction of the minimum wage. They labor in sweatshops, on building sites, in brothels or at other grubby work shunned by most Thais. Hospital figures show that foreigners in Mae Sot who had the health checks required by work permits totaled only 21,337 this year -- no more than a fifth of the migrants.

Take S D Fashion Co., sealed off behind a high wall and big metal gate. It employs hundreds of workers from Myanmar but hasn't had a single one screened for health this year, according to hospital records. Its human-resources manager says the factory has registered some but not all of its workers, blaming bureaucracy.

Labor activists denounce what they say is systematic exploitation in the border zone. They have had some success in curbing the worst abuses. A Thai labor tribunal in May ordered an S D Fashion subcontractor to give the equivalent of $36,000 to 134 underpaid workers. The case had begun when workers, mostly unregistered, tried to negotiate better conditions and were promptly fired.

Ma Naing, 43, crossed the Friendship Bridge from Myanmar 18 years ago and has since labored at half a dozen Thai factories. Not one paid even half the minimum wage, she says. She says her last boss had her handcuffed when she refused to sign a form saying she received the legal wage. She later escaped with help from a labor-rights organization tipped off about her ordeal.

Despite rampant abuse, neither workers nor labor-rights activists want foreign buyers to cancel orders from factories on the border. This, they say, would merely leave migrants without work and shift the abuse to other places with low labor costs.

"There is too much cheap labor in the world -- this is the big problem," says Than Doke, an activist in a 1988 student-led uprising in Myanmar that, like the recent protests, was brutally suppressed. Now in exile in Mae Sot, he helps run a group called the Burma Labour Solidarity Organization.

In 2003, it and a Norwegian group compiled detailed evidence that a Mae Sot factory was using underage and underpaid workers to produce goods bearing the brand name Tommy Hilfiger. The U.S. garment company says the production either was unauthorized or involved counterfeits. According to labor activists, the factory fired 800 workers and closed.

"There is a real moral dilemma for everyone involved," says Kevin Hewison, a scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied Myanmar's migrant labor. Abuse needs to be tackled, he says, but "if this leads to workers losing jobs and being sent back to Burma, a lot of people will be hurt."

Sanctions present a similar dilemma. The U.S. barred investment in Myanmar in the late 1990s and cut off trade in 2003. Europe imposed more limited restrictions in 2004. Most major Western companies now avoid direct involvement in Myanmar, except for a "grandfathered" investment by Chevron Corp. in a Myanmar gas field and pipeline and a stake in the same project held by France's Total SA. The White House wants to tighten the economic squeeze in response to the regime's current repression.

The aim is to punish Myanmar's secretive leaders. But the sanctions hit ordinary people hardest -- and help drive job seekers across the Moei River.

Just before the military's assault on protesters Sept. 27, Mr. Lurer of Top Form visited sewing workshops in Yangon. He says he went to figure out why bra workers with years of experience kept turning up at his Thai plant pleading for work. The reason, he says, is that Myanmar's bra factories have nearly all shut down because Western markets won't take their goods.

After his return from protest-clogged Yangon, which he left just hours before the army started shooting, Mr. Lurer faced a small protest of his own. About two dozen of his Burmese workers took umbrage when a supervisor criticized their production rate. During a lunch break, they marched off to a Buddhist temple. The supervisor followed and asked them to sign resignation papers. They refused and went back to the factory.

Mr. Lurer called in the workers and showed them a copy of Time magazine with pictures of the turmoil in Myanmar. He says he told them they were free to stay or leave and, whatever their decision, would "not get shot, unlike over there."

One worker, Moe Moe, who lives with her husband and a child in a hut on the Thai side, says she spoke up with complaints and was told to stop making trouble. All of the workers except her returned to the job. Mr. Lurer says he has checked the workers' production figure and discovered that the supervisor was wrong to reprimand them.

For Asian bra factories, labor is a far smaller part of expense than materials. But the availability -- and therefore the cost -- of labor varies sharply from place to place. It's the labor variable that lures underwear and other manufacturers to the Thailand-Myanmar border.

Amnart Nantaharn, head of the Mae Sot branch of the Federation of Thai Industries, blames the spotty registration of migrant workers on cumbersome Thai bureaucracy. He says labor activists -- several of whom were attacked in the past by unknown assailants -- stir up trouble needlessly.

Factory bosses shouldn't worry too much about formalities such as work registration, Mr. Nantaharn says. "I tell them we can protect them" by talking to soldiers, police and others. "You don't always have to pay money."

Mr. Lurer at Top Form says his plant allows "no monkey business. None." His biggest buyer is an intimate-apparel business, recently bought by Berkshire Hathaway's Fruit of the Loom unit, which includes the brands Vanity Fair, Lily of France, Bestform and Vassarette. No one at Berkshire was available for comment, and several efforts to reach Fruit of the Loom officials for comment were unsuccessful.

Another big customer is New Jersey-based Maidenform Brands Inc. It says it requires all suppliers to comply with all labor laws and hires auditors to review each factory.

Top Form International sells more than 55 million bras a year. It does about 60% of its manufacturing in China. But the company said in a recent annual report that it would continue moving production "from expensive locations to low cost and labour abundant areas."

The result: staff cuts in China's increasingly expensive Guangdong province and near Bangkok, coupled with expansion on the Moei River. Mr. Lurer is building a new workshop and wants to add more Myanmar bra stitchers. He has also opened a separate Top Form plant in the center of Mae Sot. There, Myanmar workers make what he says are state-of-the-art seamless panties, also for export.

Like many factory bosses on the border, Mr. Lurer takes a dim view of labor activists, who have twice taken Top Form to labor tribunals over compensation claims by workers who said they'd been fired. Top Form won one case and lost one. Mr. Lurer says his plant gets "stabbed in the back" because it employs only registered workers who have the right to complain.

Min Lwin, secretary of the Federation of Trade Unions Burma, an exiled labor group, says Top Form follows the rules more than most companies. While some workers are "upset with conditions" at Top Form, he says, others "think Michael [Lurer] is their savior."

Mr. Lurer is a migrant himself, having grown up in Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Hong Kong and studied at a university in Dalian, China. He learned multiple languages, including some Burmese. Frequently on the road, he's had bad luck with transport. He totaled a car on a mountain road and was in a plane crash at Mae Sot airport.

Before opening the riverbank plant in 2004, Mr. Lurer, Top Form's regional director, had traveled across Thailand looking at sites. He checked out the border with another impecunious neighbor, Laos, but concluded that Laos, with only 6.5 million people, didn't have a sufficient number of people so hungry for work they would cross the border into Thailand for it. Myanmar had a population more than eight times as large as Laos and was bursting with desperate people hunting for jobs.

It did have a few drawbacks. A big one was the presence of heavily armed men in rugged areas nearby. The stretch of riverbank across from his Thai bra factory is controlled by an outfit called the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, an armed rabble from Myanmar's restive Karen ethnic group. Members of the DKBA used to fight the Myanmar junta. Now they collaborate with it.

Mr. Lurer, who has struck up a rapport with the group, says he occasionally hears gunfire in the distance at night but hasn't had any trouble. DKBA troops monitor river traffic from a rickety hut covered with tropical foliage.

More menacing for Top Form, says Mr. Lurer, are copycats trying to break into bra making. Last year, a knitting factory owned by Hong Kong and Thai interests poached about 10 of his workers and tried to expand into the lingerie business. The effort flopped. The border region, says Mr. Lurer, "is a cutthroat place."

--Wilawan Watcharasakwet and James Hookway in Bangkok, Thailand, contributed to this article.

Write to Andrew Higgins at