Monday, April 4, 2011

Aung Moe and Amy: Sanctions' Collateral Damage (1)

When I first met Amy in 1995 she was a 14 years old pretty Anglo-Burmese girl working as a young seamstress in my friend’s garment factory in Thin-gann-gyun, a poor satellite township on the outskirt of Rangoon. 

Tall, slim, waist-length brown haired, and very fair with big blue eyes she stood out among the dark-skinned brown-faced Burmese girls and young women around her on the crowded concrete floor of the garment factory.

According to my friend’s wife who managed the factory Amy was an orphan. Amy’s father was an engineer-seafarer who was killed when the oil tanker he worked for caught fire on the high sea when Amy was only 2 or 3. She lost her mother to a hepatitis epidemic in the late 80s and when I met her she was living with her old Anglo grandma in their big old dilapidated colonial house on a small block of ancestral land not far from the garment factory.

Before she joined the garment factory two of them had to survive on a small income from their little makeshift grocery shop at the gate of their block. But now she had a relatively well-paying decent job and she seemed to be happy working hard at her industrial sewing machine 10 hours a day Monday to Saturday every week.

New Beginning for Poor Burma

By then in mid 1990s Burma was already in full swing into market economy from the age-old socialist system. The military government had completely abandoned Ne Win’s fake Socialism and opened the country wide to Foreign Direct Investment and as a result the richest man of the land then was the licensee and operator of the Pepsi-Cola Bottlers from America.

Garment Factory Workers in Rangoon.
People were full of hope and my friend a fourth generation Burmese-Chinese was no exception. His well-known family was one of the wealthiest families in Burma even during Ne Win’s despotic Socialist rule. They had many businesses and the main one was tobacco and cheroot business and they employed hundreds all over the country.

Once the country was opened to the outside world they grabbed the opportunity and started a garment factory in Rangoon with the help of a South Korean businessman who already had access to the US market. He brought in raw materials like rolls of fabric, threads, buttons, etc. from Seoul and took back the finished garments as the exports from Burma to USA.

What my friend’s family had to do was just buy a suitable block of land, build a large-enough factory, import the machinery, hire the labors, and simply start the factory. At less than US 50 cents a day Burmese labor is the cheapest even in the poor SE Asia.

At that time Burma as a poor LDC had unfilled textile quota to US so their business had almost unlimited potential to grow. By mid 1990s they had already employed close to 500 workers almost all females aged under 30 and Amy was one of them.

Back in mid 1990s they could never have foreseen, even in their wildest dreams, the imposing of horrible economic sanctions against Burma by the US led West Bloc within few years time.

I was then working as the middle man between Burmese exporters of prawn meat and Australian importers here in Sydney. Business was good and I was even thinking of involving in other industries. So I ended up frequently in my friend’s factory whenever I had free time from my business while I was in Rangoon. That’s how I met and later knew about the tragic story of Amy and her Little Buffalo.

Little Buffalo

My friend and his family teasingly called him Kywe-lay meaning a little water-buffalo. His name was Aung Moe and he was also an orphan like Amy but with a sadder background, my friend told me. 15 years old Aung Moe was a Karen-Burmese from a very poor Burmese village in Nyaung-lay-bin Township a majority Karen region in Pegu Division. 

In that rural region most villages were Karen but dotted here and there were Burmese villages. At the height of Karen-Burmese war Aung Moe’s Burmese father was the leader of their village militia, but he fell in love with a young Karen girl from the neighboring Karen village which was also the mortal-enemy of his village.

They eloped and finally came back and lived among the Burmese who were reluctant to accept a Karen woman among them. The relentless pressure became too much for Aung Moe’s father and he eventually killed himself by swallowing a massive dose of pesticides leaving his heavily pregnant wife in destitute.

The young woman died during the child delivery and Aung Moe had to grow up as an orphan at his paternal grand parents’ house. After a traditional four years of Burmese primary education at the village monastery he was given out to my friend’s family through an agent as an indentured child-labor which was and probably still is very common in primitive Burma.

By 1995 he was dark, stout, strong, and stubborn like a water buffalo, my friend said to me and I agreed after observing him working in the garment factory. But he worked extremely hard for long hours seven days every week for a pittance with free lodging and food and minimal cloths. He worked the heavy jobs like carrying large rolls of fabrics at the garment factory and slept in a tiny shed at the back together with some other male workers.

He wasn’t smart and he wasn’t talkative at all but his weakness was Amy, the prettiest girl in his small world. Whenever he had a rare free time he tried to hang around her and attempted to please her like bringing the stuff she needed. While other girls and women working at their industrial sewing machines had to regularly go fetch already-cut fabric and threads and buttons from the stores for their jobs Amy didn’t even need to stand up from her machine as Aung Moe appeared to know exactly when and what Amy needed.

He came running all the time for Amy and every body was aware of it and teased two of them like hell. But Amy was quite strict in dealing with Aung Moe as if she had kept him at an arm length. We could see the one-sided love affair developing with our deep sympathy on the young man. But no one had foreseen the tragedy they both ended up in a few years later because of American sanctions.

Unlikely Public Enemy No.1 of US Congress

Under the immense pressure from the loosely formed coalition of Burmese exiles and human rights organizations the US Congress passed the Customs and Trade Act in 1990 with bipartisan support to isolate the military regime and Burma. The Act allows the President to impose sanctions against Burma but then the President Bush (Senior) had simply refused to do so.

In 1995 the 104th Congress passed The Free Burma Act calling for imposition of economic and trade sanctions on Burma. Similar act named The Burma Freedom and Democracy Act was introduced also a year later in 1996. 

Championed by the Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who has had closed personal ties with Burma's first and only Nobel laureate ASSK the President Clinton issued the Executive Order 13047 banning US investment in Burma on May 20, 1997. Horrible sanctions have begun and soon would be tightened more and more to strangle the destitute people of dirt-poor Burma.

Sometime I seriously wonder if there were any other Nobel laureate who either naively or ruthlessly called for harsh economic sanctions against his or her own people.

During almost twenty years the economic and financial sanctions would push the long-suffering people of Burma deeper into abject poverty and starve and kill thousands and thousands of them.

Exiles Industry & Their Visa Mills

By 1996 I could sense the looming economic and financial catastrophe realizing soon in Burma as I shuttled frequently between Rangoon and Sydney for my business. I didn’t know much about US but here in Sydney I didn’t really like the happenings. Especially the Burmese exiles groups calling and pressuring the politicians and the Australian Government for the sanctions.

Back then in Sydney the relatively small (compared to other ethnic groups like Vietnamese and Filipinos) but considerable Burmese community had two distinctive groups. The first group was well established Anglo-Burmese or Burmese legal residents and the second many young illegal residents who had recently overstayed their tourist visa and student visas and other class of temporary visas.

The majority of the first group stayed well away from the politics and troubles back home while the minority with a grudge to settle with the military Government in Burma started an active campaign. My uncle living in Canberra was one of them rebels. And they attracted the young Burmese Overstayers who saw the rare opportunity to covert their illegal status to a legal one.

Their hope was the welcoming precedence of Australian Government reluctantly granting Permanent Resident Visas to 20,000 passport-burning overstaying young Chinese students after the June 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests and subsequent massacre back in China. So the Burmese here in Australia formed many political groupings and started protesting all over the place mainly in front of the Burmese Embassy in Yarralumla, Canberra.

Like the photos of Chinese students burning their Chinese passports in front of Chinese Consulate in Surry Hill, Sydney were the best convincing evidence to grant them the PR status many young Burmese soon participated in the embassy protests and took photos of themselves with embassy background as part of their applications for political asylum in Australia.

By 1990 Australian Immigration started issuing the PR Visas to the so-called Burmese dissidents and as soon as the news reached back Rangoon the lines for Tourist Visa at Australian Embassy on the Strand Road were getting longer and longer every day. The Visa racket was on and it was quite simple.

Get the Tourist Visa, buy the return ticket to Sydney, join one of the many so-called dissident groups, go shout anti-Government slogans at the Burmese Embassy in Canberra, take some photos there, and immediately apply political asylum well before the three months stay expired. The icing on the cake was reclaiming the unused leg of the return ticket within one year of arrival as the PR was granted.

Australian citizenship is one of the most desirables for mere mortals of this world. Collectively the Aussies are the biggest landowner on the earth with limited land supply. And the land in Australia girthed by sea is rich and bountiful. Just by simply scooping the earth and selling the raw dirt to China Aussies need not even work.

Australia is the only country with the so-called Baby Bonus in the whole wide world. Any Aussie woman or girl can get about ten thousand dollars from the Government for simply having a baby. One can’t be blame for wanting to become Australian citizen. But there is a long and hard process to become one. Even the English from the old motherland England are now having trouble getting the coveted PR status.

Thus, so many Burmese happily stuck in while the pot of gold was open and the Visa Mills were working overtime. I still remember one particular case of Burmese Visa Mill in Sydney. A young Burmese illegal had established a dissident organization called All Burmese Democratic League or something like that just to gain PR for himself and his whole clan back in Burma.

With two or three well-established Burmese doctors as the patrons he legally established his short-lived ABDL as a non-profit organization and actively organized rowdy protests in front of prominent Sydney Town Hall and violent demonstrations in front of Burmese Embassy in canberra. Within two years he not only gained his PR the forty odd members of his clan brought in as tourists from Burma also gained the much coveted PR status.

The rumor among the Burmese then was that the massive expense of airfares and other travelling costs in bringing his whole clan were appropriated out of the thousands and thousands of dollars the Australian Government had granted his organization for political purposes.

I myself had taken the advantage of that shot-lived window of opportunity. I managed to bring my kid brother to Sydney in 1992. But, by then the Australian Immigration had almost closed off the free ride taken by the Burmese and the Rangoon Embassy had just stopped issuing the tourist visa to Burmese passport holders.

To get the Australian Tourist Visa for my kid brother I had to spend thousands of dollars going back to Rangoon and persuading the Australian Visa Councilor to issue one for him. As soon as he arrived in Sydney he followed the well-established process of the Visa Mills for applying the political asylum and was granted a refugee visa within three months of his arrival.

But now at 20,000 A$ deposit as a bond the Australian tourist visa for Burmese nationals is the most expensive tourist visa in the world. Australian government has learned the lesson very well after reluctantly granting thousands and thousands of so-called Burmese refugees the coveted Australian Citizenship.

And the same Australian Government, under the immense pressure from the coalition of Trade Unions and Burmese Exiles and so-called Burmese dissident groups, also loyally played the Deputy Sheriff to USA and imposed strict financial and economic sanctions against Burma.

The writing on the wall is very clear and most foreign businesses relying on the exports to the biggest market in the world, USA, especially the garment businesses and the textile industry were preparing for the worst and ready to get out of Burma in 1997.