Burma, Golf and Gary Player

The Burmese definitely need a few holes of golf.

The Juntas Accomplices

If you want to support democracy in Burma, phone Gary Player and the other western businessmen propping up the generals.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 2nd October 2007

China has become the worlds excuse for inaction. If there is anything a government or a business does not want to do, it invokes the Yellow Peril. Raise the minimum wage to 6 an hour? Not when the Chinese are paid 6 a year. Cap working time at 48 hours a week? The Chinese are working 48 hours a day. Cut greenhouse gas emissions? The Chinese are building a new power station every nanosecond. China is our looking-glass bogeyman. If you behave well, the bogeyman will get you.

As we saw during George Bushs climate pantomime last week, China the excuse is not the same place as the China the country. Bush insists that the US cannot accept mandatory carbon cuts, because China and India would reject them. But while he stuck to his voluntary approach, China and India called for mandatory cuts(1). China is a projection of the Wests worst practices.

I mention this because the western companies still trading with Burma use it as their first and last defence. If we withdraw, they insist, China will fill the gap. It is true that the Chinese government has offered the Burmese generals political protection in return for cheap resources. In January, for example, China vetoed a UN resolution condemning the juntas human rights record. Three days later it was given lucrative gas concessions in the Bay of Bengal(2). It is also true that the Chinese government has no interest in promoting democracy abroad. But the more the Burmese junta must rely on a single source of investment and protection, the more vulnerable it becomes. China is not intractable. If western governments boycotted the Beijing Olympics, they would precipitate the biggest political crisis in that country since 1989.

The businesses still working in Burma are having to scrape the barrel of excuses. Even Tony Blair, that bundle of corporate interests in human form, said we do not believe that trade is appropriate when the regime continues to suppress the basic human rights of its people.(3) Explaining his companys decision to pull out of the country, the CEO of Reebok noted that its impossible to conduct business in Burma without supporting this regime. In fact, the juntas core funding derives from foreign investment and trade.(4) As the junta either controls or takes a cut from most of the economy, as almost half the tax foreign business generates is used to buy arms, any company working in Burma is helping to oppress its people.

The travel firms Asean Explorer and Pettitts, which take British tourists round the country in defiance of Aung San Suu Kyis pleas, both refused to comment when I rang them, then slammed down the phone(5). Aquatic, a British company which provides services for gas and oil firms, was more polite, but still refused to talk(6). The tourism companies Audley Travel and Andrew Brock Ltd promised to phone me back but failed to do so(7). But aside from invoking the Chinese bogeyman, each of the others produced a different justification.

The spokeswoman for Orient Express, a travel company which runs a cruiser on the River Irrawaddy and a hotel in Rangoon, told me that tourism can be a catalyst for change. Given that tourism has continued throughout the juntas rule, I asked, how effective has that catalyst been? There has been very slow progress, but we feel it has helped.(8) The Ultimate Travel Company explained that We feel we just like to offer the people who travel with us a choice. If people want to travel, they can. And really Id prefer not to enter into a debate about it.(9)

Rolls-Royce, which overhauls engines for Myanmar Airways, a company owned by the state, told me that it operates in line with UK export licences. As long as we are meeting government requirements, thats what we work to. Im not getting into a debate on this issue. Were doing this to ensure passenger safety.(10)

William Garvey, the boss of the furniture company which bears his name and which works mostly in Burmese teak, admitted that he buys timber that comes from Rangoon, through government channels. But if he stopped, a highly likely consequence is that the rate of felling would increase dramatically. whatever you may think about the Burmese government, they are still using a sustainable system for extracting teak. Arent human rights a component of sustainability? In the strict sense, no.(11)

The managing director of Britannic Garden Furniture, which makes its benches from Burmese teak, and supplies the Royal Parks and the Tower of London, told me I know its no excuse to say we dont buy it directly. You try and get teak from other sources. But its rubbish. The government has given us no directive not to trade with Burma.(12)

All these companies have felt some pressure already, thanks to the work of the Burma Campaign UK, which includes them on its dirty list(13). But I have stumbled across one western firm which most Burma campaigners appear to have missed. It is run by one of the worlds most famous sportsmen, the golfer Gary Player. Player has made much of his ethical credentials. Next month he will host the Nelson Mandela Invitational golf tournament, whose purpose is to make a difference in the lives of children. One of his websites shows a painting of Mr Player bathed in radiant light and surrounded by smiling children. Nelson Mandela stands behind him, lit by the same faint halo(14).

Golf, to most of us, looks like a harmless if mysterious activity, but in Burma it is a powerful symbol of oppression. Some of the countrys courses have been built on land seized from peasant farmers, who were evicted without compensation. Golf is the sport of the generals, who conduct much of their business on the links.

Players website shows him, in 2002, launching the grand opening of the golf course he designed, which turned a 650-acre rice paddy into The Pride of Myanmar. The golfers paradise that stands in Myanmar today is said to be living proof that miracles do happen.(15) I asked his company the following questions. Who owned the land on which the course was constructed? How many people were evicted in order to build it? Was forced labour used in its construction? As Players company is based in Florida, did the design of this course break US sanctions? His media spokesman told me The Gary Player Group has decided not to comment on any questions regarding Myanmar-Burma.(16) It seems to me that there is a strong case for asking Nelson Mandela to remove his name from Mr Players tournament.

If, like me, you have been shaking your head over the crushing of the protests, wondering what on earth you can do, I suggest you get on the phone to these companies, demanding, politely, that they cut their ties. I sense that it wouldnt take much more pressure to persuade them to pull out. By itself, this wont bring down the regime. But it will cut its sources of income, and allow us to focus on confronting the reality of Chinese investment, rather than the excuse.


  1. Ewen MacAskill, 29th September 2007. Europeans angry after Bush climate speech charade. The Guardian.

  2. No author, 20th July 2007. Myanmar: Pariah or Prospect? Energy Compass.

  3. Tony Blair, 25 Jun 2003. Prime Ministers Questions. Hansard Column 1042. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200203/cmhansrd/vo030625/debtext/30625-03.htm

  4. Paul Fireman, 7th June 2005. Burma: Time to Restore Human Rights and Democracy. Wall Street Journal.

  5. Phoned on 28th September.

  6. ibid.

  7. ibid.

  8. Pippa Isbell, Orient Express, 28th September 2007.

  9. Gloria Ward, Ultimate Travel Company, 28th September 2007.

  10. Martin Brodie, Rolls-Royce, 28th September 2007.

  11. William Garvey, William Garvey Ltd, 28th September 2007.

  12. The managing director would not give her name. 28th September 2007.

  13. http://www.burmacampaign.org.uk/dirty_list/dirty_list_details.html

  14. The painting flashes up in the top righthand panel here: http://www.nmigolf.co.za/default.asp

  15. Gary Player Design, 21st November 2002. Design Excellence Revealed at Grand Opening of Gary Player Signature Course in Myanmar. http://www.garyplayer.com/newsRead.asp?cid=3&pageid=1&articleid=12

  16. Duncan Cruickshank, 30th September 2007.


I predict this will be a busy thread.