South Korea has a Burma Problem

The announcement Wednesday that South Korean engineers had found a record natural gas field in Burma could hardly come at a worse time for Seoul, if it bothers to consider the irony.

A day earlier, a Seoul court recalled a time when South Korea’s human rights record was among the worst in the world by awarding a record US$26 million in damages to the families of eight men who were arrested for treason and summarily executed in a hasty proceeding in 1975. The courts in Seoul have called the hangings, done during a time of anti-communist hysteria whipped up by then-dictator President Park Chung Hee, one of the darkest days in the nation’s modern history.

Meanwhile, in Rangoon a handful of key activists were arrested this week for protesting against Burma’s military government and a massive hike in fuel prices. In the first public manifestation of dissent against the pariah government in 10 years, people have taken to the streets in persistent numbers throughout the city this week, fanning hopes that a democracy movement may be reborn in the long-suffering country.

What is especially significant is that the protests are led by members of the so-called 88 Generation Students group, made up of former student leaders who led the massive pro-democracy uprising that very nearly overthrew military rule in 1988, only to be suppressed in a hail of bullets.

Among those arrested was Min Ko Naing, who next to Aung San Suu Kyi is considered to be the nation’s most prominent pro-democracy leader. Min Ko Naing spent 16 years in prison following his arrest after the 1988 movement was put down, with certainly hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of dead, according to Burma analysts. The victims are believed to have been cremated.

In the midst of the new protests, Daewoo International Corp., which holds 60 percent of three natural gas fields in Burma, announced that it had found as much as 219.2 billion cubic meters of exploitable gas, the biggest gas reserve that a Korean company has ever discovered.

The extraordinary sensitivity to the human rights of its people, also exacerbated by the plight of 23 South Korean Christian aid workers kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan last month, is a tribute to South Korea’s own democracy uprising of 20 years ago.

Almost exactly one year before the Rangoon protests, tens of thousands of South Korean students brought that country’s long period of military rule to an end by forcing then-President Chun Doo Hwan to agree to direct presidential elections.

Again the ironies here are striking. The military in South Korea seized power in Park Chung Hee’s coup of 1960. After he was assassinated by his own intelligence chief in 1979, Chun seized power. In Burma, the coup came in 1962 when General Ne Win took over and became absolute ruler. He was succeeded by the current junta after the bloodbath of 1988.

This year, South Korea celebrated the 20th anniversary of its successful democracy movement. In remarks in June President Roh Moo-hyun, himself a democracy activist from the period, said, “The people finally pulled off the victory. Justice prevailed and democracy triumphed. It was truly an emotional victory in history. Up until that victory, however, numerous people suffered and even sacrificed themselves. I pay tribute to the noble sacrifices of those who died for this proud history and pray for the repose of their souls.”

In Burma in 1988 the example of South Korea was fresh on the minds of the students, who were also inspired by the 1986 “people power” movement in the Philippines. But in Rangoon, of course, there has been no celebration.

The government in Burma, isolated and reviled by the west, survives largely because its Asian neighbors, principally China but also India and South Korea, strike lucrative deals for its abundant natural resources. Needless to say, that money rarely trickles down to the people, who are among the poorest in the region.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch has expressed concern about proposed pipeline construction, urging companies with interests in Burma’s oil and gas deposits to suspend their activities until there is a change in government. The US energy company Unocal, now a unit of Chevron, has faced unceasing protest because of its interests in the Yadana pipeline project in southern Burma. It was hauled into a California court and accused of benefiting from human rights violations in the pipeline deal. It later settled the case out of court.

Daewoo in particular is in a sensitive situation. Human Rights Watch in an earlier press release pointed out that Daewoo’s former president and chief executive, Lee Tae-yong, went on trial in March on charges of illegally exporting weapons equipment and technology to Burma to build an arms factory in the central part of the country. Lee was arrested late last year for being behind a contract prosecutors said was worth $133 million. The companies, prosecutors said at the time of the arrest, received 90 percent of the payment for the contract and the plant was 90 percent complete.

The Korean government has barred the export of defense material to Burma, but gas exported from Burma is another matter. Korea Gas, a state-owned company, holds a 10 percent stake in the gas field project (two Indian oil companies hold the remaining 30 percent) and The Korean Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy has expressed a desire to see the gas liquefied and sent to Korea. The amount found, 219.2 billion cubic meters (7.7 trillion cubic feet), is equal to Korea’s gas consumption for about seven years.

Daewoo International, which was formed out of the detritus of the Daewoo Group’s collapse during the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, is also considering selling the gas by pipeline to China and Thailand.

Meanwhile, Seoul has been silent on the fate of protesters in Burma. On Thursday, eyewitnesses said some 300 protesters aligned with Burma’s opposition National League for Democracy, which overwhelmingly won elections in 1990 that were nullified by the junta, attempted to walk to their party headquarters from the outskirts of Rangoon. A number of protesters were thrown into trucks and carted off. Among those arrested was former National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition member Naw Ohn Hla, once a close aide to Aung San Suu Kyi, the long-detained Nobel laureate.

Debbie Stothard of the ALTSEAN-Burma pressure group, told Agence France Presse, “The economy is no longer deteriorating. It's decaying." Stothard added that residents appeared willing to take greater risks to demand change from the government. "People feel they don't have very much to lose," she told AFP.

It isn’t known what the Korean government will do, but it’s likely not much. Korean President Roh Moo-hyun told a Burmese reporter at the Asia Europe Meeting in 2006 that there are no globally agreed principles regarding sanctions on human rights. Korea has not joined sanctions on Burma, although other Asian governments are showing increased impatience with the isolated dictatorship.

The foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which admitted Burma as a member, agreed in early August to establish a regional human rights commission, a direct slap in the face for Burma, which resisted the move. The ASEAN foreign ministers said they had expressed concern to Burma about its slow pace of change and urged it to show tangible progress that would lead to a peaceful transition to democracy in the near future.

In the meantime, Daewoo announced Wednesday that it could supply 600 million cubic feet of gas per day, or 3.7 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas per year for the next 20 to 25 years from its lucrative field.