While much of the Burmese “pro-democracy” movement is , it does New Zealand no credit to be trading with the repressive socialist rulers of Burma.
New Zealand State-Owned communications company Kordia has announced a contract to build cellphone towers for Burma’s ruling military junta.
Use of cellphones in Burma is restricted to members of the ruling elite. To buy a cellphone, a Burmese citizen must obtain a recommendation from a military official and pay a fee of NZ$1500, in a country where average incomes are less than NZ$2 a day. In announcing plans to extend the cellphone network, the Junta has said that licenses will be granted to members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association, a pro-Junta militia that was used to crush pro-democracy protests in 2007.
Trevor Mallard is quite simply wrong to say that Burma’s cellphone network is not a tool of repression. Even more cynical was Helen Clark’s claim that building Burma’s cellphone network would contribute to democracy. Burma’s military rulers are not about to allow democracy activists to use cellphones. As part of last year’s brutal crackdown on democracy protests many activists had their home telephone lines disconnected.
Internet cafes in Rangoon have recently been shut down. The junta is showing no signs of relaxing its grip on communications in Burma. Pro-democracy groups that work on Burma’s borders and inside the country tend to communicate face-to-face, or sometimes by satellite phones, which are expensive and illegal to possess in Burma.
When Clark says that the United Nations has not imposed sanctions on Burma she ignores the fact that the International Labour Organisation has recommended sanctions in response to the regime’s use of forced labour. Other governments, including the United States and European Union, have also imposed sanctions on the regime. Burma’s democracy movement, including the country’s elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, have repeatedly called for sanctions and a halt to all business with the regime.
If the New Zealand government were serious about assisting the Burmese democracy movement there are many groups who need support for their humanitarian and political work in the country. Building cellphone towers for the Junta is not helpful.