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Ambassador Linn Myaing: Burma's Hotbed of Controversy
The Washington Diplomat / September 2002

By Larry Luxner

Hanging prominently in the reception room of the Embassy of Burma is an elegantly framed copy of an 1857 letter from His Majesty the Great Glorious King of the Rising Sun, Bawashin Mintayngyi, to U.S. President James Buchanan.

"If our country and the American country become allied nations," promises the missive, reproduced in both the English and Burmese alphabets, "it is believed that the traders and the poor, the subjects of these two countries -- up to the grandsons and the great-grandsons of the succeeding generations -- would be much benefitted."

How disappointed the king would be today.

One hundred and forty-five years since his noble offer to improve bilateral ties, relations between the United States and Burma remain strained and rooted in suspicion.

For starters, the two sides can't even agree on what to call this Texas-sized nation of 52 million.

"The name of our country has always been Myanmar," insisted Ambassador Linn Myaing, in a lengthy interview with The Washington Diplomat. "The first reference to Myanmar can be found on a stone inscription in a temple in Bagan built in the 12th century A.D. It was only after the annexation of the country by the British colonialists in the late 19th century that the country came to be known as Burma."

As such, he said, all his government did was "restore the original name of the country to its rightful status in 1989, with the aim of breaking away from the colonial past and embracing all the ethnic groups living in Myanmar under a unified banner."

Ridiculous, counters Thaung Htun, whose New York-based National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma represents 21 members of Parliament in exile.

"The regime had no right to change the name of the country without the consent of the people," Htun said in a phone interview. "Secondly, the name Burma encompasses all the ethnic nationalities of our country, while Myanmar represents just one ethnic group."

Adds Jeremy Woodrum, a spokesman for the Free Burma Coalition: "We're not the only ones who don't recognize the name Myanmar. The military regime renamed the country arbitrarily, and this is an illegal regime."

The United Nations and its agencies recognize Myanmar, as do the vast majority of Asian and African nations. But although Myaing's mission is officially known as the Embassy of Myanmar, the State Department and all 15 members of the European Union still use Burma -- largely an act of defiance against the ruling junta which Myaing and his embassy represents.

"This [refusal to recognize the name Myanmar] is solely to show displeasure to the government without having any regard for our long history, our language and our people," says the diplomat. "We feel this is a discourteous and politically motivated act."

And the name game is the least of Myaing's problems.

A pariah state that since 1997 has been off-limits to new U.S. investors, Burma and its leaders face a daily barrage of criticism from American human-rights activists, journalists and members of Congress.

Since June 2000, at least 30 major apparel retailers -- including Wal-Mart, Hanes and Gart Sports -- have announced they won't import goods from Burma because of rising bad publicity associated with forced labor and other human-rights issues.

"We're heartened that American companies are extricating themselves from Burma's brutal system of forced labor," said Judy Nutter of United Methodist Women, one of 30 organizations campaigning for an end to U.S. investment in Burma.

As a result, says the U.S. Department of Commerce, apparel imports from Burma totaled only $76 million during the first three months of 2002 -- a 35% drop from the $116.9 million worth of apparel imported during the same period last year.

Despite the gloom, bilateral relations took a turn for the better on May 6, when the Burmese government -- following intense international pressure -- released pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi after having put her under house arrest in September 2000. That was Kyi's second period under detention; the first was from 1989 to 1995.

In 1990, Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won elections, though the regime ignored the results; the following year, Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

"In the spirit of national reconciliation, 297 people belonging to the NLD and other political parties who ran afoul of the laws have been released in recent months," said Myaing, sticking closely to 10 pages of talking points he had prepared specifically for this interview. "The government will continue to release all those who pose no threat to the community and the peace and stability of the nation."

Myaing added: "Aung San Suu Kyi moves around freely, meeting the people and carrying on with her party duties. We are assisting her in any way we can. At the invitation of the government, she has also visited a number of development projects. She was quite pleased with the projects and has praised our technological achievements."

Yet since her release, Kyi still hasn't had any face-to-face meetings with senior leaders of the military junta that detained her. "There has been no substantive political dialogue yet," she recently told a Singapore newspaper. "I am very concerned about this, but we have hope that things are moving in that direction."

At the same time, Burma is cautiously optimistic that its tenuous relationship with the United States will improve, now that its most famous dissident has been freed.

In fact, says Myaing, bilateral relations have improved considerably since George W. Bush moved into the White House.

"Compared to the Clinton administration, we have very good relations with people from the State Department today," he told "Recent events indicate that the relationship between the U.S. and Myanmar is definitely moving in a positive direction, even if rather slowly. The United States supports the democratization process. As such, we notice less pressure, more understanding and more recognition of our efforts and the challenges we face."

Myaing, 54, was transferred to Washington in May 2001 after serving two years in Paris as Burma's ambassador to both France and UNESCO. He lives here with his wife Thi Thi Ta and two daughters, and supervises an embassy staff of six diplomats, three attachés and five local secretaries.

"The work of an ambassador is not only to solve problems, but also to promote trade -- if not investment -- and to promote tourism," said Myaing, handing out crudely printed pamphlets for luxury jungle resorts that attract tens of thousands of Europeans and Japanese tourists every year, but very few Americans.

Myaing conceded that the Burmese mission at 2300 S Street -- which was once the home of the late Vice President Hubert Humphrey -- is the site of frequent demonstrations. The FBC, which claims 5,000 to 10,000 members in 25 states, pickets the embassy every Sunday at 3 p.m., and on important anniversaries such as Aug. 8, the date in 1988 when Burmese soldiers allegedly slaughtered hundreds of anti-government activists.

"My Laotian friends are always having protests, my Chinese friends are always having protests," said Myaing. "I don't mind meeting [the demonstrators], but nobody has ever demanded to talk to me."

And with good reason, says FBC's Woodrum.

"Power in Burma is extremely centralized," he said. "There's a troika of three top leaders, and they make the decisions. Their ambassadors are relatively marginalized from that decision-making process."

Adds Htun, the NCGUB delegate in New York: "They cannot make decisions without instruction from Rangoon. They're even afraid of talking to us at social events and UN meetings. They're used to running away whenever they see us."

Indeed, relations between Washington and Rangoon could worsen considerably if the Senate passes a bill introduced by Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) that would prohibit all imports from Burma. The bill has 22 co-sponsors; similar legislation has 36 co-sponsors in the House.

"There's a movement afoot in Congress to ban all imports of Myanmar products into the U.S.," said Myaing. "Although this does not inflict a major blow to our economy as a whole, it has led to the cancellation of orders from garment factories and is already having adverse effects on the lives of the people."

According to the ambassador, Burma has 400 garment factories, of which only two are state-owned. Together, they employ about 300,000 workers, mainly girls and young women.

"Each person working in the factory has five people depending on her, so if all the garment factories were to close down, it would mean that 1.5 million people would be left without any means of support. It is sad, rather than catastrophic, that the grass-roots campaign in the United States has managed to persuade companies such as Crate & Barrel and Ikea to stop importing from Myanmar. This hurts ordinary people trying to lead decent lives."

Adding uncertainty to Burma's already unstable investment and production market, the government recently stopped issuing import licenses to foreign companies in an apparent bid to give local companies an advantage. The move especially hurts the economies of Thailand, Bangladesh and Malaysia -- Southeast Asian countries which are among Burma's most important trading partners.

Yet in its desperate effort to attract new foreign investment and prevent companies already there from fleeing, Burma is accused of pressing millions of its own citizens into labor against their will.

"Forced labor, including forced child labor, has contributed materially to the construction of industrial parks subsequently used largely to produce manufactured exports, including garments," said the State Department's 2002 Country Report on Human Rights, issued in early March.

As if that's not enough, a California judge in mid-June cleared the way for a lawsuit against oil giant Unocal Corp., one of the largest foreign investors in Burma. The suit alleges that Burmese military officers forced villagers to perform hard labor on behalf of Unocal's Yadana Pipeline project in southern Burma.

Richard Herz of EarthRights International, co-counsel for the plaintiffs, says it's the first case in U.S. history in which a corporation will stand trial for human-rights abuses committed abroad.

"We presented the court with irrefutable evidence that the Burmese military committed widespread human-rights violations for the benefit of Unocal's project," he said. "Unocal was dealing with the devil. Now they will have to answer to a jury."

Several human-rights groups have also accused the military regime of using rape as a weapon against ethnic minorities -- particularly in economically depressed Shan state, along Burma's border with Thailand.

Myaing, labeling such charges "completely false," said horror stories about soldiers raping little girls "are mainly aimed at tarnishing the image of the government and destroying national unity." He went on to cite dozens of statistics listing how much money the government has spent on bridges, roads, schools, hospitals, TV stations, health clinics and post offices in impoverished border areas since 1988.

But the ambassador admitted later in the interview that "the government has put in place a comprehensive framework of legislative, executive and administrative measures to totally eliminate the practice of forced labor in the country" -- making one wonder why such measures are necessary in a nation where forced labor supposedly doesn't exist.

"We are not making a blanket denial," he said. "No institution or society is perfect, and the government does not rule out the possibility of isolated cases. On Aug. 2, an inquiry led by the deputy minister of home affairs began conducting inquiries into the allegations leveled against us. If the perpretrators are found, they will definitely be punished."

Meanwhile, the ambassador said his government has invited newly appointed UN Human Rights Commissioner Sergio Veilia de Mello to visit the country.

"This shows that Myanmar has nothing to hide from the international community with regard to human rights," he said. "Let these independent observers find out for themselves."

Even so, Myaing complains that his country is being singled out unfairly for punishment.

"The perception that people on the outside have of the human-rights situation is the result of some groups who bear no love for Myanmar. These groups want to create a negative image of the country for their own political goals. Whenever these groups say something, the media reports it as the gospel truth."

Myaing added: "When you look at these allegations of rape and forced labor, and it's alleged that we are using this as a weapon against ethnic minorities, you have to take into account the credibility and motives of the groups making such allegations. These groups are based outside the country and are closely associated with the few remaining armed groups terrorizing our civilian population, and are involved in the illicit drug trade."

Despite Myaing's attempts to discredit those who criticize the Rangoon government, Htun said the NCGUB's campaign has shown impressive results.

"The United States imports about $300 million a year from Burma," he estimated. "It might not be a big amount for the U.S., but it's a lot for a country like Burma, so we are continuing to boycott textiles or garments made in Burma. To some extent the campaign has been successful."

And the FBC isn't likely to give up anytime soon, either.

"We support Suu Kyi 100%. We want the military regime to enter into a full-scale dialgoue with her and the NLD," said Woodrum. "After all the political prisoners have been released and violence ends in Burma's ethnic areas, then we'll feel that we have been successful."

And maybe then, King Mintayngyi's 145-year-old promise of better relations will finally ring true.

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