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Uses rainforest timber: Norwegian furniture producer in Burma defends the military regime

For three years, well out of the eyes of the Norwegian public, the Norwegian furniture company Scansia has run a furniture factory in Rangoon, the capitol of Burma. The factory produces garden furniture using teak, which they buy from the military regime. The Burmese rainforest contain 80% of the remaining teak trees, but the military regime is strongly criticised for the removal of this valuable type of tree. Should today's speed of removal continue, Burma's resource of teak trees will disappear within 25 years, according to environmentalists and the international boycott campaign against the military regime.

Artikkelen er mer enn to år gammel. Ting kan ha endret seg.

For three years, well out of the eyes of the Norwegian public, the Norwegian furniture company Scansia has run a furniture factory in Rangoon, the capitol of Burma. The factory produces garden furniture using teak, which they buy from the military regime. The Burmese rainforest contain 80% of the remaining teak trees, but the military regime is strongly criticised for the removal of this valuable type of tree. Should today's speed of removal continue, Burma's resource of teak trees will disappear within 25 years, according to environmentalists and the international boycott campaign against the military regime.

By Harald Eraker

The Norwegian main stock holder and the owner of Scansia, Arne Varleite, has no second thoughts about doing business in Burma. He looks upon himself as an «economic missionary» who provides jobs for ordinary people, and says to NorWatch that the Norwegian foreign ministry has no idea of the conditions in the country. He claims that people in Norway have been misled by «rot and double standards», represented by prime minister Brundtland and opponents of the military regime.

Scansia's furniture factory in Burma, Scansia Myanmar, started its activities in 1993. The factory is fully owned by Scansia SDN BHD in Malaysia, which also produces furniture. 70% of the shares of the parent company in Malaysia is owned by Arne Varleite. The factory in Burma employs 260 people, according to Varleite, and produces garden furniture made of teak. – We are the first company which makes finished products by teak in this country. Thereby we break the vicious circle where developing countries have supplied the developing countries with raw materials, which has been going on for years, Varleite says. In addition Scansia provides jobs for around 200 people through contractors. According to Varleite, Scansia must still import the majority of the necessities for its production, apart from the teak. – As an example: We import the glue from the Swedish company Casco Nobel, Varleite explains. Most of the garden furniture is exported to UK and Germany. Scansia buys the teak from the Myanmar Timber Enterprise, which is controlled by the military regime (SLORC) through the department of forestry. Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE) has monopoly on forestry in Burma. Consequently Scansia's purchase of teak goes straight into the pocket of the notorious SLORC. But Varleite has no second thoughts on dealing with SLORC, and dismisses Scansia's purchase of teak. - We buy perhaps 0.1% of all the teak which is taken out of Burma yearly, and this is nothing in the big picture. If we don't buy teak, others will do it instead. And in addition: At least one thing SLORC has managed, namely having one of the world's best forestry management systems. If anybody cuts one single tree without permission, prison is next stop, says Varleite, who also says that expected revenue is 18 million NOKs (app. 2.8 mill USD), and that this will mean a break even.

Forest plundering
Not everybody agrees that Burma is carrying out a defensible forestry policy. According to the international boycott campaign against Burma, the country is suffering from the third largest deforestation rate world-wide. The US environmental organisation Rainforest Action Network called for a boycott of teak from Burma and Thailand already in 1989, based on the countries forestry policies.

In a report from ITTO (International Tropical Timber Organisation) from 1991, it is shown that many producers of garden furniture have chosen to drop teak from Burma and Thailand for the same reason.

In the June edition of New Internationalist this year, a 20 page article on Burma shows a scary development:

«With today's deforestation rate, the teak reserves will be gone in 25 years.»

A study published in Thai Yunnan Project Newsletter in 1993, shows that an estimated 1500 to 3750 tons of timber, mainly teak, leaves Burma on trucks via the main road Wanding to China, every day apart from Sundays.

In addition, the military regime SLORC uses brutal methods as part of their forest activities. The US organisation Rainforest Relief claims that SLORC uses «rape, torture and forced labour to remove the last hide outs for the ethnic democracy fighters, in order to get hold of the World's largest remaining reserves of teak forest.»

Arne Varleite claims, on the other hand, that thanks to SLORC, there is more teak in Burma now than before.

– Besides, teak is not a rainforest tree, it is a deciduous tree with large leaves. Consequently one can not compare the activity in Burma with timber activity in for example the Amazon, Varleite says. He is also of the opinion that the activity in Burma is lenient, as elephants are used to bring out the timber.

NorWatch can add that most of the trees in a rainforest is precisely deciduous trees.

In January this year, the foreign ministry warned Norwegian businesses against investing in Burma due to the human rights situation in the country.

According to Amnesty International and other human rights organisations, Burma is one of the worst dictatorships in the World: Around 10.000 people were killed by the military during the democracy demonstrations in 1988, thousands are murdered or have disappeared since then, millions have had to participate in forced labour, and people are subject to torture and rape by the military regime.

But Varleite brushes off the question of whether Scansia does not have any second thoughts of their involvement in Burma.

– The Foreign Ministry has no idea of the conditions in Burma. We have lived in the country every single day for the last 4 years. Thanks to SLORC, today Burma is one of the most peaceful countries in the World. OK, not everything SLORC does is good, but people in Burma are not so interested in democracy right now - it dawns on them that stability is better. Look at Chile - because of Pinochet the country has the strongest economy in South America. There are 43 million Burmese people - what are they supposed to do? We gave them work and income at our factory, Varleite says. He is of the opinion that people in Norway have been misled by interest groups:

– You live in a fantasy world which is unbelievable. Luckily, Burma has good neighbours who defends them. SLORC's prime minister was recently in Malaysia, and was met by a salute consisting of 21 cannon shots when he arrived. The third world now rises against the imperialism and the double standards of the West. People in Norway will also rise against these double standards and rotten argumentation when they get to hear the truth of the situation in Burma, Varleite says, and directs his attack primarily against the Government and the Burma Groups in Norway.

– Clearly, peace is a many faceted concept. In Burma's case, quietness does not mean that the human rights organisations have good days, rather that the suppression and control of the SLORC is total, says Tormod Lien, board member of the Support Group for Burma. He maintains that Norwegian businesses should stay away from Burma at this point in time.

– If any country should be boycotted, it should be China, with their constant violations of human rights, says Varleite and continues: But when it comes to countries like China and Indonesia, yes well then Brundtland et Co. says that we must influence the conditions in their countries through co-operation and trade. Have you ever heard of similar rotten attitude and double standards! The reason is that these countries are important for Norwegian industry. When Burma gets more money in the bank, Gro will come sneaking to talk about co-operation, Varleite says.

«Thanks to SLORC, Burma is one of the most peaceful countries in the World today»
Scansia director Arve Varleite, about the leadership of the military regime.

Double standards
Varleite is in no doubt that this time will come, because «Burma is a very important market».

– There are very many Norwegians who come and go to Burma these days - I constantly meet them on the plane and on other occasions. They do not seem to have many problems to establish themselves in Burma, says Varleite, and presents Norsk Hydro as an example:

I met a representative for Norsk Hydro in Burma some years back, who told me that they were about to get a vast contract within oil and gas in the country. I asked whether it was not problematic for a state owned company like Norsk Hydro to establish themselves in Burma. He then told me that provided Norsk Hydro got the main responsibility for the project, they had top clearance that the company would take the political burden establishing in Burma would involve, Varleite says.

While he is at it, Varleite adds that he blames Norway and Denmark for the fact that the Norwegian consul in Burma died in prison.

Peace Prize winner out
Varleite emphasises that Scansia has a neutral position with regard to Burmese politics. Still, he does not hide his view that the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is out of the picture and does not have support among people.

– Suu Kyi is on the sideline. You must agree: things look pretty hopeless for her. What she represents are good things, but she is a shadow in Burmese politics, and loses more and more support among the people. She was desperate when she urged western industries not to invest in Burma. But she did not succeed in getting the countries in South East Asia to expel Burma from ASEAN, and this was a defeat for her, Varleite says, who believes she does not have sufficient knowledge of the conditions in the country.

– She has hardly lived in Burma. She left the country when she was 15-16 years old, and only returned to look after her sick mother in 1988. During the uprising at the time, she and her party got good support because they promised good things. But even if she did win the election, we must not forget that only 30-40% of the Burmese people went to ballot boxes.

He points to the fact that Burma is a country consisting of several minorities which have fought among themselves for several decades, and praises SLORC for achieving peace in the country.

– What do you think would have happened if SLORC dropped the reins and let things loose? Look at what has happened in Bosnia or the atrocities between Tutsies and Hutus in Rwanda. It is absolutely hopeless that Norwegian politicians go against the will of half the World's population. All the countries in South East Asia supports Burma. Previous prime minister in Singapore through 31 years, Lee Kuan Yew, recently gave an interview where he says that democracy is not for them, that the Nobel Peace Prize winner should «remain behind a fence and maintain a symbol», because in Burma there is only one institution which can run the country and that is the military. And Kuan Yew is not anybody, he is widely respected for what he has done to the development of Singapore, says Varleite.

– Come to Burma and see for yourself. Talk to ordinary people and visit our factory. Then you will get an entirely different impression than what the media writes in Norway. But don't talk to the Peace Prize winner and the little circle around her, challenges Varleite NorWatch.

Rats nest
Varleite blames the Burma committees in Norway as well as the «rats nest» around the radio station Democratic Voice of Burma for the «propaganda» against Burma.

– I can not believe it - it is so hypocritical of the Norwegian state to support this radio financially. The state would not have supported a radio run by students from Timor which tried to spread propaganda against Indonesia. This radio in Oslo is a rats nest of a few people from an ethnic group in Burma which has as its aim to overthrow SLORC. This way, Norway finances a blood bath. Not that SLORC cares about this radio, no one in Burma has heard about it anyway. But they must react to it, as a matter of principle. My tip is that the Norwegian authorities will cease its support, Varleite says.

He completes the interview with yet another forceful salvo against the «hypocrisy» in Norway:

– Whatever they say in Norway - none of it matters to us. But it is sad that a small group has infiltrated the media in Norway. Enormously many Norwegians come and go to Burma. Those who have been there knows that what comes out in Norwegian media are lies, says Varleite, who considers moving to Norway to participate in the debate about Burma.

Scansia in Burma..
Scansia Myanmar is a fully owned subsidiary of Scansia SDN BHD in Malaysia. The Malayan company is controlled 70% by the Norwegian Arve Varleite, the remaining 30% by a Scottish business man.

Varleite owns Scansia AS in Norway, a «sleeping» company according to Varleite.

Most of the garden furniture produced in Burma is exported to UK and Germany.

Norwatch Newsletter 9/96