Malaysia’s “Asian solution” likely to secure little progress in Burma

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Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Burma’s National League for Democracy, which won the elections annulled by the military junta in 1990, was released unconditionally after years of periods of short-lived and uncertain freedom. When the Burmese military crushed mass demonstrations in 1988 she was arrested and accused of ‘inciting unrest’. She has spent most of the last 14 years under house arrest.

Next door, Malaysia has been basking in the glory of its diplomatic triumph because of the role played by one of its citizens in securing Suu Kyi’s release. Many have said that it disproves the theory that the world’s “major players”, the US and Europe, will ultimately decide Burma’s future. Thus Razali Ismail, the former Malaysian ambassador to the UN, is said to have crafted an “Asian solution to a most intractable Asian problem”.

Yet the so-called Asian solution was more than meets the eye. Several days before Suu Kyi’s release it was revealed that Razali, a close supporter of Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who he backed during the political crisis following Anwar Ibrahim conviction and sentence, was wearing two hats: one as a sharp diplomat and the other as a crude businessman. During his seven highly-publicised ‘diplomatic’ trips to and from Rangoon, the Burmese capital, supposedly to secure Suu Kyi’s release, Razali was in fact a hardworking businessman: making business deals with Rangoon’s leaders to supply Myanmar with the so-called ‘e-passport’ manufactured by his company, IRIS Technologies.

A career diplomat, he served as permanent representative of Malaysia to the UN in New York from 1988 to 1998 and was the UN general assembly’s president from September 1996 to September 1997. Thanks to his close friendship with Mahathir, and true to Malaysia’s cronyism-infested style of economic management, Razali has been making a fortune since 1998 supplying smartcard chips for Malaysian passports. Now Razali is laughing all the way to the bank: Rangoon has asked him to supply 5,000 e-passports to be used by Burma’s key businessmen and junta officials.

It must be remembered that passports are almost inaccessible to ordinary Burmese citizens, and that such highly sophisticated technology is a luxury that most Burmese can only dream of. The junta has jailed people even for possession of fax machines, while the internet is out of bounds to all but a select elite. Even today, it is almost impossible for Burmese citizens to travel abroad without undergoing a rigorous application process to obtain exit permits, forcing hundreds, mostly dissidents and persecuted Muslims, to sneak into neighbouring countries, only to find themselves escaping out of the frying pan into the fire.

Razali’s action is the worst possible insult to Suu Kyi, saying Suu Kyi’s vocal opposition to investment in Burma was “irrelevant” to his business dealings with the iron-fist junta, since her stance would probably soon change. “I think you should give it some time and talk to her,” he said.

Suu Kyi, who is widely respected by the Burmese people for her huge personal sacrifices, has consistently opposed any kind of foreign investment in her country. The fact is that most of these investments do not benefit ordinary Burmese people, and only prolong the rule of the junta, whose members are some of the wealthiest in Burmese society. A special report on “Burmese tycoons” released by the Irrawaddy, a newsmagazine published by Burmese dissidents in exile, reveals the names of the military junta’s friends and allies who have been reaping huge profits from contracts that cover almost everything from cooking oil to construction materials and drugs.

Since the junta’s coup, Burma has deteriorated steadily to become one of the poorest countries in the world and an economic wasteland. Soon after taking power in 1988, the junta reintroduced a market economy in Burma, hoping that economic success could establish the legitimacy that the blood-tainted junta desperately needed.

Thus it is not surprising to see the shady business deal involving the Malaysians. For a start, the Malaysian regime’s repression of its people is no better than the Burmese junta’s: it has merely perfected the art of dictatorship through the use of ‘democracy’. Kuala Lumpur has also been investing heavily in Burma, ignoring the regime’s treatment of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have been expelled from their homes and forced to live in squalor near the border with Bangladesh. Rohingyas have been at the receiving end of the Burmese junta’s most repressive methods. They originate from the Arakan state in western Burma but are denied citizenship rights, the right to travel outside or in Burma, and refused educational opportunities and jobs.

Malaysia has also often refused Burmese dissidents and activists, who sought political refuge there thinking that a “Muslim government” might not betray them. Far from it: the Malaysian regime returned them to the Burmese security forces. In August 2000, Human Rights Watch charged that police extortion, torture and beating are some of the realities faced by Rohingya Muslims who cross the border from Burma to Malaysia in order to escape the Burmese junta (see Crescent International, August 16-31, 2000). The report also accused the UNHCR office in Kuala Lumpur of not putting enough effort into helping Rohingya refugees, saying that it was “systematically underestimating the dangers Rohingya face if forced back to Burma.”

In the mean time, Razali’s greed might have embarrassed some of the less insensitive UN and Asian officials involved in the Burmese negotiations. His contract required him to abide by UN staff regulations, among which one is barred from undertaking any business dealings that might benefit from association with the UN. UN staff are also expected to submit financial disclosure statements.

But instead of feeling embarrassed himself, the crude Razali, in an interview on May 7 with the International Herald Tribune, brushed off the ‘conflict of interest’ issue: “The fact that my company is involved in discussions with the Myanmar government is not a conflict of interest because I have not negotiated it myself,” Razali said, refering to Burma by the name its junta has given it. He added: “I am so busy when there that I don’t even have time to brush my teeth twice.” The odour of his dubious dealings will take more to obscure than that.

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