A report from 2003 released by by the Global Witness watchdog suggests
the Burma military junta will survive token trade sanctions, partly through
its control of one of Burma's most precious resources: vast
stands of old-growth hardwood forest, which have already been
obliterated elsewhere in the region.
"The ruling military has been the ultimate arbiter of forest
resources both within Burma and internationally," says the
report. "This control, together with the revenue derived from
the timber trade, continues to play a significant part in the
maintenance of its grip on power."
In Rangoon's environmentally damaging "resource diplomacy",
powerful Chinese logging companies - which have strong political
ties - have been granted concessions to log swathes of Burmese
virgin forest in exchange for political loyalty and material
support. Thai companies, which enjoyed similar concessions until
the early 1990s, still covet those opportunities.
"Isolation has only served to [push] the Burmese regime into the
arms of two countries, Thailand and China, that are more intent
on helping themselves to Burma's natural resource wealth than
helping Burma in any meaningful way," Global Witness says.
"Resources have been traded by the regime in exchange for
political, financial and military support from its neighbours."
At home, the Burmese regime has shored up political support by
using the lucrative logs as the foundation for "patron-client"
relations, in which key commanders or their relatives,
intelligence figures and former ethnic minority insurgent groups
win control of vast tracts of forest. Logging concessions have
also been granted to business allies.
In 2001, the legal trade in Burmese timber - mostly teak trees
destined for high-end users around the globe - brought in about
$280 million or 11 per cent of the country's legal foreign
exchange earnings. But data from wood-importing countries
suggests actual Burmese log exports may be nearly twice the
level recorded by the government.
Global Witness says part of the generals' intransigent refusal
to engage in political talks with Ms Suu Kyi about a political
transition stems from their concern about "the potential loss of
these economic perquisites in a more democratic society".
As economic conditions worsen because of mismanagement and
sanctions, the junta is growing more reliant on timber for
foreign exchange, leading to increasingly unsustainable logging,
including by the state's Myanmar Timber Enterprises, the report