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The Changing Face of Rangoon and Sl

Subject: The Changing Face of Rangoon and Slorc's Child Rights Abuses,  from new frontiers


>From new frontiers -- Feb 1997
Vol. 3, No 2
(Monthly Briefing on Tourism, Development and Environment Issues in the
Mekong Subregion)

(The Nation: 17.01.97; 31.01.97; The Irrawaddy: 31.12.96; Burma Issues: Jan. 97)

SINCE Burma's State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) has opened up
Rangoon's long isolated economy to foreign investment, the roads in the
capital are clogged with Japanese cars while numerous new five-star hotels
dot the city skyline. 

But behind the apparent signs of prosperity, observers say a grave economic
crisis confronts the country, which, with an annual per capita Gross
Domestic Product (GDP) of between US$200 and US$300, is still one of the
poorest in the developing world. Also after the initial rush - primarily by
companies from ASEAN countries -, enthusiasm among foreign investors is
tapering off due to steep structural problems, lack of infrastructure, low
level of skills and the push by pro-democracy campaigners for a global
boycott of trading with the harsh dictatorial regime. 

"ASEAN investors, who expected quick returns in the Burmese economy, are
showing signs of alarm, and western companies are under pressure from human
rights groups back home to boycott operations here," said an Asian diplomat
based in Rangoon. 

U Kyi Maung, deputy chairman of the National League for Democracy (NLD),
commented: "Only money could convince these (ASEAN investors) about whether
it is wise to place their bets on an unpopular regime with a record of
brutality and economic mismanagement." 

The reasons for increasing panic among a majority of investors, who put in
more than US$655.63 million up to May 1996 in Burma's nascent tourism and
hotel sector, are quite obvious. Despite the military regime's attempts to
open up the country to tourism, continuing repression by the military and
strong international boycott campaigns have kept hotels empty and promise to
continue to do so. The launch in November of "Visit Myanmar Year" (VMY) is
proving to be a non-starter, and desperate attempts to convince
international tourists and tour operators are not likely to make much of a
difference, say observers. 

VMY proponents keep claiming that the revenue from tourism will benefit the
general population, while pro-democracy campaigners argue that tourism will
benefit only the SLORC. Senior military officers and their families run
luxury hotels such as the Strand, New World and Inya Lake, as well as other
tourist enterprises. The Australian Financial Review recently suggested that
the hotel industry in Burma also provides a way of laundering money from the
illegal drug trade. 

Other than the tourism and hotel sector, huge amounts of money have poured
into real estate development. Desperate for foreign exchange to pay for its
defence spending, estimated to make up more than 50 per cent of the
government's budget, military rulers are seen to be selling off prime areas
of land in Rangoon at give-away prices. 

A former resident of Insein, a major suburb of Rangoon, said in a recent
interview with Burma Issues: "(A) problem people in my area are facing is
land-grabbing. Land prices in Insein are rising very quickly, and many
people are trying to buy up land as fast as possible, especially land close
to the airport and on the roads leading west. My family has lived on the
same plot of land, in the same houses for forty years... Now someone has
claimed that our homes are on his family's land and is trying to evict us
all.  He has paid off the judge and lawyers, so even though we took him to
court we have little chance of winning a fair judgement." 

All over Rangoon, old buildings are being demolished and swanky new
high-rises are taking their place. There is even no longer rest for the
dead. Last November, the military government posted a notice at the gate of
Kyandaw Cemetary giving relatives notice to move the remains to a new site,
two hours drive away from Rangoon. The cemetery is located on 20 to 30
hectares of what has become prime real estate in downtown Rangoon, near
Hanthawaddy intersection. Both Burmese and foreigners of Christian, Muslim,
Hindu and Buddhist faiths are buried there. Rumours abound in Rangoon as to
what the government wants the land for: a casino to be built by former
druglord Khun Sa, a hotel to be built with foreign investment, or a Japanese
shopping center. 

Whatever is planned for the land, the SLORC does not reveal it. A government
spokesman, Maj Hla Min stated in a recent Asian Business News television
interview: "Yangon (Rangoon) has changed, and the location of the cemetery,
once it was probably on the outskirts of Yangon, but today it's almost in
the centre of the city, so naturally it has to be relocated." 
The deadline was later extended, but what remains on the land after this
date is to be bulldozed. 


(BP: 18.1.96; TN: 18.1.97) - THE United Nations Committee on Children's
Rights has urged the Burmese military government to take specific action to
eradicate child labour, the recruitment of minors into the army, and child
prostitution. Members of the Committee - the mechanism responsible for
monitoring the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child
(CRC) - said torture, forced labour and child trafficking must be banned. 

The Committee's conclusions were issued a day after Human Rights Watch/Asia,
a US-based NGO, published a report highlighting widespread atrocities
against children. Some 200,000 children and adults in ethnic areas were
relocated in 1996 alone, forced by soldiers who entered their villages and
gave families a few days to evacuate their homes, the report revealed.
Children were also among the hundreds, perhaps thousands killed in recent
years from beatings and exhaustion, after being coerced to build roads,
railways and bridges to improve infrastructre to help woo foreign investment
and tourists.

In 1993, Burma passed a child law, but it does not prohibit acts of torture
or rape against children.  Nor does it ban child prostitution or the use of
children for pornography.  There is also no mention either of child
trafficking into sexual or other forms of slavery, although there are at
least 50,000 Burmese girls and women working in Thailand at any one time.

Burma ratified the UN's CRC in 1991, buts its accession should be seen as an
"empty gesture to improve its image abroad,", the NGO report concludes.

The independent experts making up the UN Committee on Children's Rights said
they were unsatisfied with the explanations offered by the SLORC which
attended the two-day meeting in Geneva.  The leaders of Rangoon's
delegation, Maung Ky, said the accusations could be ignored as they were --
in his opinion -- "false" reports provided by opposition groups.  Burma's
ambassador tot he UN in Geneva, U Aye, commented the charges were "totally
pitiful" and would be counter-productive for the promotion of human rights
in Asia.  He also warned that children's rights and Burma's 1993 child law
"should not be politicized."