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Western Press Review: Burmese Democracy, Russian Arms

By Susan Caskie

Prague, 17 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today covers a wide range of topics, from the lack of democracy in Burma to alleged Russian military cooperation with Iraq. There is also comment on labor markets in Europe.

International Herald Tribune:

Burmese democracy leader Aung San Soo Kyi, who has been under house arrest since the military junta refused to recognize her party's election victory in 1990, wrote an appeal in the Washington Post yesterday, carried in today's International Herald Tribune. Soo Kyi says her followers are persecuted and denounced daily. "Arbitrary arrests and imprisonment," she writes, "are daily fare." Yet she notes: "We are committed to nonviolent political activities that will lay a foundation for a healthy democratic state, and we take all possible measures to establish the necessity for the rule of law."

Soo Kyi announces that her party is filing lawsuits against the ruling junta, even though it is well aware, as she puts it, "of the stranglehold that the military junta has on Burma's judicial processes."

The junta has failed to govern effectively, the democracy leader charges. In her words: "Although the junta created some openings for private enterprise and foreign investment, administrative and political practices inimical to a healthy society and failure to adopt a viable macroeconomic policy have pushed the country into an economic and social morass. A World Bank report drawn up last year, recent International Labor Organization actions and the latest observations of the World Health Organization provide incontrovertible evidence that lack of good governance is at the root of our country's troubles," she continues. "This must be recognized by those who have concerns about drug production and trafficking, the spread of HIV, political refugees, illegal economic migrants, humanitarian needs and other problems."

The Nobel Peace Prize winner concludes: "Unless determined steps are taken to effect political change that will lead to an accountable and transparent administration - a basic requirement for good governance - measures aimed at economic or humanitarian relief will merely be of a stopgap nature, too easily rendered null and void at the whim of the authorities or swept away by administrative inefficiency and social instability."

The Washington Post carried an editorial with Soo Kyi's commentary, also printed in today's Herald Tribune. The Post has this to say about Soo Kyi's statement: "What is remarkable about it, under the circumstances, is her moderation. Writing with the confidence of a leader who knows that she enjoys popular support, she continues to call for nonviolence from her supporters and dialogue with her tormentors."

The Post notes that the junta terrorizes democratic activists and press-gangs the people into hard labor. "Despite ample natural resources and what was once an educated population," the editorial says, "Burma sinks ever deeper into poverty as the junta, again out of fear of its own people, keeps universities shuttered. The few multinationals which do business in Burma, such as Unocal of the United States and Total of France, succeed only in enriching themselves and the corrupt leadership."

The Post admonishes Asian countries to take a firm line against the junta. It says this: "Burma continues to be an embarrassment to its would-be defenders: to its neighbors in the Association of South East Asian Nations, who admitted it into their organization in hopes of moderating the junta's repression and encouragement of drug dealing, and to Japan, which lacked the principle recently to join in a 257 to 41 vote censuring Burma's modern-day practice of slavery. When leaders of the top industrialized nations meet in Japan this week, and when ASEAN leaders gather a few days later in Thailand, they should speak out on behalf of the beleaguered National League for Democracy and its courageous chief."

Wall Street Journal Europe:

The Wall Street Journal Europe says in an editorial today that Russia is eager to promote arms sales -- even to rogue states. A British newspaper has reported that Russia agreed to sell Iraq advanced air defense systems that would enable it to shoot down U.S. and UK planes patrolling the no-fly zone.

"While President Putin swears he is abiding by Russia's international commitments," the Journal says, "he has not done a lot to dispel such rumors. Back in April, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev held secret meetings with Iraqi Defense Minister Staff General Sultan Hashim Ahmad, who was on his way back from Belgrade. The visit was announced jointly by Baghdad and Moscow only after the Iraqi guest had left." Even Russian newspapers at the time found that behavior suspicious.

The editorial says: "The incentives for Russia here are clear. In the old Cold War days, Russia did about $10 billion worth of annual trade with Iraq, with a heavy emphasis on arms exports. Baghdad still owes Russia some $7 billion, and Russian contractors have been awarded key construction contracts in Iraq."

The Journal warns: "Between Saddam's insatiable appetite for weapons -- and particularly ballistic missile technology -- and Russia's growing appetite for cash-earning weapons deals and for wielding influence among its traditional client states, the latest report of attempted acquisition is certainly credible ... Let's hope," it concludes, "Western leaders have not let down their guard."

Financial Times:

The Financial Times' editorial today looks at Europe's labor markets. It says that although falling unemployment in Europe has usually meant rising wages, the current expansion in jobs has not driven wages too high. It says some investment bankers are now saying the eurozone can sustain lower unemployment. "If they are right," the paper notes encouragingly, "it could mean that the euro-zone has the potential to enjoy a prolonged period of high growth, rapid job creation, and low inflation."

The Financial Times says this development owes much to labor market reforms. More workers are working part-time, and for lower benefits. But macroeconomic trends also contribute. Businesses are more willing to relocate their activities if a particular country becomes too expensive. "Workers and trade unions know," the editorial says, "that if wages rise too high, businesses will simply go elsewhere." In addition, the single market has intensified product competition, which keeps prices down.

The Financial Times gives the following advice: "Continued success in job creation depends on governments doing everything they can to avoid bottlenecks in labor supply. In the eurozone, this means drawing more people into the labor force. Participation rates are rising, but remain very low by international standards. Preventing wasteful early retirement, and encouraging more women into work, are the next big challenges for European governments."


Writer Cedric Mathiot presents another side of the labor market issue in the French leftist daily Liberation. He writes that the European Union is not the paradise for workers that it likes to think. "On paper," he writes, "everything is rosy. International Labor Organization conventions on workers' protections have been ratified everywhere in the EU. But a report from the International Confederation of Independent Syndicates contends that national laws have not kept up with international norms, leaving 'a gap between law and practice.'"

The first black mark, he notes, is the treatment of women, whose salaries are up to 20 percent less than men's for comparable work. "This is not a surprise," Mathiot says, " but it remains a flagrant violation of the international convention on equal pay, which dates from 1958." The report also criticizes the use of prison labor. According to the law, prison labor is allowed if it is voluntary. But in many EU countries, prisoners lower their chances of early release if they refuse to work.

Mathiot says the most striking point in the report concerns child labor. Some 2 million children under 16 work in the UK, a country that has not signed the international convention on child labor. And in France, the report singles out the agricultural sector, where children as young as 12 work on family farms. The commentator says the EU must pay more attention to the rights of workers.

Washington Post:

As a blackout continues on news from the Middle East peace negotiations at Camp David, the Washington Post's foreign policy commentator Jim Hoagland turns his attention to democracy-building in Arab countries. In his words: "History is stripping away the last excuses of the region's autocratic rulers for resisting the global trend to greater political and economic freedoms."

Hoagland says the Warsaw Declaration of democratic practices, signed by 106 countries last month, should be held up as a principle that all signatories, including Arab countries, must adhere to. Hoagland singles out Egypt as a laggard, noting that the government recently arrested Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a human rights activist. He says: "The ink was still drying on Egypt's signature when police arrested Mr. Ibrahim on June 30, essentially for campaigning for free elections."

"Secretary of State Madeleine Albright helped inspire the Warsaw Declaration," Hoagland notes. "Her aides have compared its potential importance to the Helsinki Declaration on Human Rights of 1975. Western nations used the Helsinki document to demand that the Soviet Union live up to its commitments to grant freedoms for its citizens."

Hoagland believes the Warsaw Declaration can be an important policy tool, but only, he says, "if Washington is prepared to use it consistently, with large and important governments as well as with Ecuador and Fiji. But it can also be quickly discredited if diplomacy as usual is the option chosen in Egypt or Saudi Arabia."

Hoagland concludes: "The United States has always been timid in pushing democracy on Arab nations. The Clinton administration, apparently fearful that Mubarak's corruption-riddled regime could collapse under challenge from Muslim fundamentalists, has been especially deferential to Cairo. Washington has consistently sided with the rulers, not the people, in Arab society."

Neue Zuercher Zeitung:

Finally, the Swiss Neue Zuercher Zeitung sees a "Gloomy Outlook for Yugoslavia." The Swiss paper notes that the president of Yugoslavia's smaller republic Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic, has refused to accept the illegal amendments Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic put through to extend his rule. "With that," the editorial says, "the third Yugoslavia, after the first in the interwar years and the second created by Tito, is at an end. Its gravedigger is the president himself. Will the small constituent republic now formally dissociate itself from Serbia?"

The NZZ concedes that Montenegro itself is no poster child for democracy. But it is trying. It says: "The new leadership is pushing through certain political and economic reforms. The Albanian minority is taking part in government. And Djukanovic is opening up his country, declaring willingness to cooperate with the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague and even pursuing relations with Croatia."

But Serbia will not allow the secession of Montenegro. The editorial asks: "Is a fifth war near in the Balkans?" It says the question depends on how long Djukanovic can avoid a referendum on independence that Belgrade could use as an excuse for military intervention. "If such a referendum is held," the paper says, "the Bosnian scenario threatens, and it is to be hoped that the West has learned the lessons of the wars in former Yugoslavia. If the old mistakes are to be avoided, a clear strategy is required -- and the readiness to deal accordingly, if necessary with military means."