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Burma continues to be peripheral to Westerners’ vision

By Melody Kemp - posted Wednesday, 27 June 2007

While the war in Iraq captured everyone’s energy and indignation, right on our doorstep exhausted, terrified Burmese and ethnic peoples face an age old conflict which roars and screams unabated. This war had its roots in British Colonial authorities forming alliances to divide and rule Burma. For some 60 years the people of Burma have witnessed and experienced conflict.

As an NGO worker stationed in Phnom Penh told me, “The people just walk around dehumanised. I have never been so shaken by a visit. They are so terrified they have forgotten who they are. To be safe, they chant mantras about the Burmese army being great: the same bastards who are killing their relatives.”

And that is the great irony. Saddam Hussein and his co leaders were recently hanged for crimes against their own people. Yet Burma’s generals go on killing, raping, torturing and maiming.


The only thing to fear is the occasional international equivalent of a smack on the hand. It helps having powerful friends. China has many listening posts in Burma to keep an eye on US activities in the region, while Russia assists Burma’s nuclear program by training and providing hardware capability and trading in Burmese uranium. All benefit from Burma's narco-economy that provides revenue and patronage.

North Korea and Iran have been repeatedly exposed to US and increasingly Australian approbation.

Most recently Australia announced that it would waste money on unsuccessful technology called a missile shield to assure safety from North Korea. All of this while eyes remain averted from the knowledge that Burma is a source of possibly enriched uranium to both North Korea and Iran.

Defence analyst Des Ball, and Asia-based reporters have commented that Burma’s role in dealing uranium is one more worthy of interest than it currently gets. The Burmese watchdog recently released aerial photographs of installations thought to be uranium refineries, comparing them with the photos taken over Ranger in northern Australia.

In mid May this year, Russia’s federal atomic energy agency Rosatom announced it would “help Burma build a long proposed nuclear facility”. The agency says the 10-megawatt nuclear reactor, fueled by less than 20 per cent uranium-235, will contribute to Burma’s “research in nuclear physics, bio-technology, material science as well as … produce a big variety of medicines.”

The first round of talks is well under way having been on the table for at least five years. Further discussions are scheduled for the second half of this year. The US came up with a predictable condemnation, but without follow up. Thailand was nonchalant, because they said, the facility will be closely supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency.


This nonchalance might also have something to do with Thailand’s energy needs, which are being met by numerous hydropower developments in some of Burma and Lao’s most ecologically and socially sensitive areas. The Salween dams are slated to destroy the little area left of Karen and Mon people’s livelihoods and will effectively block supply lines to rebel forces. The Karen, left behind the inland sea, will be unable to escape to Thailand.

The dams thus solve two problems for the Thais: the annual influx of refugees and the need to power Thai industry and the increasing number of extravagant Hi-So lifestyles.

More than half a million city residents, farmers, and fisher folk living at the mouth of the Salween River in Burma stand to lose their major source of drinking water, agricultural productivity, and fish stocks if the dams go ahead.

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About the Author

Melody Kemp is a freelance writer in Asia who worked in labour and development for many years and is a member of the Society for Environmental Journalism (US). She now lives in South-East Asia. You can contact Melody by email at

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