I was channel surfing the other night when I happened upon the English-language Burmese
news. The lead story was First Prime Minister Prince Rannariddh and the Cambodian
delegation's official visit to Rangoon, establishing formal diplomatic relations
with the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) ruling junta.
The more I thought about it, the more I saw universally similar parallels between
both countries - past and present.
Why, I thought, was Cambodia conferring recognition to an authoritative military
regime that was known to have brutally crushed 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations
resulting in over 3000 deaths, imprisoned under house arrest - for six years - opposition
leader and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and effectively invalidated
a democratically contested election won by a coalition of opposition parties known
as the National League for Democracy?
Burma, or Myanmar as the SLORC renamed the country, ranks among one of the unenviable
pariah states, along with Nigeria, Libya and Iraq.
Its recent "cease fire" with Mong Tai Army leader and accused opium and
heroin drug warlord, Khun Sa, only serves to underscore its renegade character. Heroin
remains Burma's most lucrative cash crop.
In July last year the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi did much to
lift the country's image.
Shortly thereafter, the ruling junta signaled its intention to join the Association
of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), gaining observer status along with Laos and Cambodia.
ASEAN plans to extend membership to Burma by the year 2000. Two of the present ASEAN
members, Singapore and Thailand, are among the biggest investors in Burma.
However, therein lies a vexing dilemma.
Should Cambodia pursue ASEAN's apparent policy of constructive engagement with the
cash-strapped SLORC regime or should pressure be brought to isolate the regime to
increase pressure for democratic reform, as was successfully applied to the former
apartheid government of South Africa?
Cambodia's interest in Burma differs from its neighbors' and more economically powerful
Having recently emerged from a dark and repressive past, should Cambodia associate
with and lend legitimacy to a brutal and authoritarian regime?
The television images of Prince Ranariddh greeting and toasting stern-faced military
men in drab uniforms did much to evoke images of an earlier dubious era in Cambodia's
The parallels between SLORC's denunciations of Aung San Suu Kyi and the Cambodian
government's criticism of local opposition candidates bears too close a resemblance
On the home front, Rangoon has tried to end ethnic conflicts within its borders that
have plagued the country since its independence from Britain.
Truces with fifteen different insurgent groups, along with major military victories
against the Karen and Mon factions along the Thai border have helped consolidate
SLORC domination and control.
However, many observers have cautioned that various cease fires with rebel groups
- including the one with Khun Sa - are only temporary "paper" solutions
with no real affect. In fact, Karenni ethnic rebels recently declared a cease fire
agreement with the Burmese junta null and void due to continued violations by the
Cambodia would do well to seek a meaningful solution - military or political - with
its insurgent opponents.
Burma is a fascinating place to visit, with a treasure trove of ruins and glittering
pagodas in Bagan and elsewhere that rival Cambodia's Angkor Wat and the Royal Palace.
The SLORC have promoted 1996 as "Visit Myanmar Year."
However, the United Nations, Human Rights Watch Asia, Amnesty International and Burmese
refugees have all documented continued human rights abuses by the SLORC, including
the use of forced labor, often under harsh working conditions, in the construction
of tourism projects.
Reports have indicated the use of people in chains - including women and children
- working in mines, on extending runways so tourists can arrive on larger jets, building
roads, and repairing a moat around the palace in Mandalay.
Human rights activists have called for a travel boycott that would deprive the junta
of foreign capital.
While foreign direct investment now exceeds $3 billion, a number of multinational
corporations such as Levi Strauss, Macy's, Amoco and Shell have pulled out of Burma
citing human rights and economic reasons.
As Cambodia emerges on the diplomatic scene, it should seriously consider its friends
and which countries it chooses to maintain diplomatic relations with.
As a responsible member of the international community and soon-to-be member of ASEAN,
Cambodia should not underestimate its ability to influence and change world events
beyond its borders.
As the Burmese television broadcast suggested, the SLORC made and will continue to
reap tremendous political benefits from Prince Ranariddh's visit.
Cambodia should tread carefully and exercise its diplomacy with care.
The world is watching. What kind of message does Prince Ranariddh's visit send?
A hazy one, at best.
- The author, who wishes to remain anonymous, is an attorney working in the