'Burmese Spring' in Danger of Losing Momentum
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'Burmese Spring' in Danger of Losing Momentum

By THE IRRAWADDY Thursday, October 13, 2011


Hope is a dangerous thing. In moments of darkness, it can bring light into the lives of those who need it most. But when hopes are dashed, they can throw a harsh light on reality and breed a deep determination to achieve real change, at whatever cost.

In recent weeks, the people of Burma have enjoyed a rare respite from decades of gloom. President Thein Sein's announcement that he would order a halt to construction of the Myitsone dam in response to popular opposition to the project was welcomed as a sign that Burma was about to enjoy its own version of the Arab Spring—a transition to democracy, without the chaos and bloodshed.
Now, however, it appears that government-led reforms are stalling. Reports that there were only 220 political detainees among the 6,359 prisoners slated to be released as part of an amnesty declared on Monday was a disappointing reminder that the current “civilian” administration is not so different from its predecessor—the brutal military junta that locked these prisoners up in the first place.

Zarganar, the celebrated comedian who was among those released yesterday, minced no words when asked what he thought about recent developments in Burma, which included a meeting between Thein Sein and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in August.

“I wanted to believe in these positive changes that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about. But since this morning, I lost belief in them because I found that the government does not have a true desire to release all political prisoners,” he told The Irrawaddy hours after his return to Rangoon from Myitkyina Prison in Kachin State.

Zarganar said he wanted to see all political prisoners freed, from the four little-known Buddhist monks he met in prison to high-profile leaders such as Min Ko Naing and Ashin Gambira. He even called for the release of Khin Nyunt, the ousted intelligence chief who was the hated nemesis of Burmese democracy activists for more than a decade.

Compared to Zarganar's generosity of spirit, the government's display of “magnanimity” in releasing barely 10 percent of the nearly 2,000 political prisoners in Burma's gulag looked not only mean, but like a needlessly cruel slap in the face of people's expectations.

Politically, it could also prove to be profoundly stupid. Thein Sein has won accolades for his decision to call off the Chinese-backed Myitsone dam project, a bold move that came at the risk of angering Beijing, Burma's major ally, but now he appears to have given in to hardliners within his own administration who refuse to even acknowledge the existence of political prisoners. This could undermine his efforts to win greater support from the Burmese public and international community, which could in turn play into the hands of the reactionaries in his midst.    

It is still too early to declare the end of the “Burmese Spring”—if, indeed, we can even say that it has truly started. But if Thein Sein is sincere about pursuing reforms, he needs to retake the high ground and respond positively to calls for the release of all political prisoners, without further delay.

The government may have missed its chance this time, but it can still regain some momentum if, as UN human rights envoy to Burma Tomás Ojea Quintana has urged, it releases all remaining prisoners by the time by-elections are held at the end of this year.

According to Quintana, who will submit his latest report on Burma's rights situation to the UN General Assembly next Wednesday, Burmese officials told him they were reluctant to release political prisoners because they were worried about public demonstrations.

What Burma's government should really fear, however, is the consequences of building up expectations that it cannot, or will not, meet. If recent signs of change prove to be no more substantial than the false promises of the past, they could fuel the very unrest the government seeks to avoid.

In other words, releasing all of Burma's political prisoners is the only way forward for Thein Sein's government, because the alternative—undoing recent progress and inviting something akin to what the world has witnessed in the Arab world—is far worse.

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Garrett Wrote:
Ohn wrote:

"I find it interesting that a lot of passionate debate has little or no relation to the article that triggers it. I noticed that Garrett has consistently and staunchly advocated for majority ethnic Burmese in the plains for more involvement in voicing their. Concern at least about the sufferings in the border regions."

There are no topics regarding Burma which are unrelated to the need for Burman majority acceptance of their part in ending the persecution in the ethnic homelands. Their traditional denial of that persecution is the addiction which has allowed the successive regimes to ruin their own lives.
It's all here in the comments of countless commentators, both Burman & foreign corporate lobbyists whose comments reflect their belief that avoiding the subject will make it a non-issue as if they want us all to remain oblivious to the elephant in the room.

If the regime is allowed to do what they have done in the ethnic homelands, they will be allowed to do anything.

Ohn Wrote:
Funny enough the solution is easy. Only people have to sit down and think about it.

The very first step is genuine kindness to the others. In Burma today you will find that the government employees are being obstructive, nurses and doctors unkind, teachers not caring the young ones, workers neglecting their jobs unless fear is put into them. Once they start really caring for the other in the immediate surrounding they will reap the benefit. Only then they will start to realize the plight of others.

As you see currently people are only interested in saving their own skin by being unkind to others, being obstructive to others and sucking up to those in power. We need authoritative figures to shape the people to be kind to each other. That's all. Simple, isn't it?

Ohn Wrote:
Yet independent personality comes with vulnerability. Like a puffed up frog, you often find the Burmese boasting about their achievements in education, money, position, connection, etc. more for self encouragement than boasting. That also makes a large number of them sycophantic to whoever has power either in the government or opposition.

And that makes them willing to join the army for their own protection and for being in the superior status as they see it.

So mothers will let their sons to go in the armies knowing that they will rape and kill. And some will do so because the do feel "superior" to the other ethnic groups. That's why other ethnic groups did not join in the 2007 monks movement. Read on.

Ohn Wrote:
That degree of ingrained independence and arrogance does help the individuals to survive but makes them less caring about others. So it does need someone of immense stature for the Burman to take note. That is where Aung San and Aung San Suu Kyi come in. So does Than Shwe. He and his wife rule by aura. And they traditionally instill chauvinistic Hitlerian superior attitude in the soldiers which makes them easy job to kill and torture other ethnicities. Just like Hutu described the Tutsi as "Cockroaches" before hacking them by hand- one million in 3 weeks. Read on

Ohn Wrote:
Burmese do have some degree of arrogance and chauvinistic attitude. It is often said that no two Burmese can ever agree. Split and factionisation is typical of Burmese politics. Burmese interest group meetings are typically attended by say - forty people representing 30 organizations putting the military's mind at ease. 40 people representing one or two organization does not occur.

Adonirum Judson spent all his life, befriended the royalty and established higher learning center in Burma but could not convert a single Burmese into Christianity. If you watch Burmese girls dancing "A-Nyient" you will notice that the girls go through the same movements but never mechanically the same as one would see in say-hip hop dance. Read on.

Ohn Wrote:
I find it interesting that a lot of passionate debate has little or no relation to the article that triggers it.

I noticed that Garrett has consistently and staunchly advocated for majority ethnic Burmese in the plains for more involvement in voicing their. Concern at least about the sufferings in the border regions.

Unfortunately he is right. Burmese are like that. But if these atrocities are happening in say-Monywa right in the Burmese heartland, you would still see the same "apathy" as you succinctly described. Yet if you manage to bring a kid from that area to heartland, he or she would have a very good chance of being looked after well just as much as any orphan of that area. Read on.

Tom Tun Wrote:
Moe Aung,

I once called for constitution to be drafted based on individual rights and freedom. There should be charter of individual rights and freedom. We are all different individually such as we are different ethnic, we have different culture and we have different political and religion believes. I personally believe that ethnicity, religion, language and culture are all individual choice to be make. One can not be discriminate for his choice and how one live, regardless to say oppressed for who he or she is. Do we have that in our constitution yet? Individual LIFE, LIBERTY and PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS should be protected by constitution and law. Only than all ethnics and Burma alike will be equal and peaceful. I think we should pursuit that goal.

kerry Wrote:
Gaddafi could not let go.

Burma's 'government' has been given every chance and encouragement to get it right.

How much intelligence do they have?

Moe Aung Wrote:

What we say on this forum is a representative example among others of how we think and interact, relevant to those of us who have access to the net. A call for unity must override pointless racial animosity and apportioning blame in this common fight. We must find a common ground/program to be able to work together.

The Karen have enjoyed a high profile in the Western media by dint of their being accessible on the border plus the popular myth of being 'predominantly' Christian like the Kachin where it's true.

So many of us are in a hurry and I'm no exception,at the risk of repeating myself. But there have been too many false dawns and defeats in our recent history.

We must unite and prepare really well this time. And it's very important to get the Tatmadaw rank and file on side for the people's lack of arms and training because of today's reality - we do not have a Burman majority armed resistance of any significance. You know you can't go it alone, so get your act together.

Garrett Wrote:
Dear Tom Tun,

Thank you for your comments.

I for one look forward to a time when unity begins with the Burman majority no longer ignoring Burma's social injustices which have gone on for far too long.

Since only Burman citizens in the cities would be visible for media scrutiny, perhaps the "Burmese Spring" should relate to their acknowledgement of & their calls for an end to over 50 years of ethnic minority persecution.

Dear Moe Aung,

I hear what you are saying, but you can't keep calling for unity, & then approach it as if it was simply a lottery which will be won by chance some lucky day. You're trying to save lives by being patient, regardless of how many lives are shattered year after year.

In order to quit smoking, one must stop lighting cigarettes.

In order to stop social injustice, society must agree as to what constitutes social injustice, & then ACT to stop it.

Failure to do so constitutes apathy, yet another form of social injustice.

Garrett Wrote:
Moe Aung,

First you say that there is so much information available on the suffering of the minorities but that the Burman people don't have access to it, then you say they will be alienated by what I write.

Do they only have access to what I write?
You can sugar-coat the Burman majority's propensity to ignore ethnic suffering in favor of THEIR economical issues, THEIR political prisoners, THEIR local ecological issues, but in my book I call it APATHY.

The Burman majority seems to be preoccupied with just about anything BUT ethnic minority suffering, & when I don't see them talking about what SHOULD be one of the most important issues to EVERY Burmese citizen, I correct that situation.

The Burman majority's well publicized issues are mostly political or economic, whereas in the ethnic homelands, their own Burman sons are deployed in a crusade of ethnic persecution & cultural genocide.

That is powerfully important for them to discuss & if YOU/THEY won't talk about it, I will.

Tom Tun Wrote:
Moe Aung, Garrett, Charlie,

Friends, I foolishly follow the unity and demands my friends to follow my way, but knowledge and experiences taught me that I am following wrong subject. I admire all of your passions and love for Burma. In most of my studied life, I still don't see that unity come by itself. The strong unity comes by action only. To gain unity, there should be motivation, the same concept of mind, same passion. We can not demand someone to unite, if we do we are no better than Burmese regime. We are all different, it is the nature of man. But, pretty often we can find common ground and do something good together. If we can all unite, there is no need to fight Burmese regime, they want yes sayer. How will you built unity? The whole world know people in Burma are suffering. How will we make their life a little bit better?

Moe Aung Wrote:

Whilst there now exist tonnes of material on the net telling people and showing in graphic detail the suffering of the minorities, the majority has no access to most of it unlike you or I. That's not to mention ethnic websites and the Western media which on the whole champions for their co-religionists.

The reality as you know only too well is extremely frustrating. You can rave and rant all you like, maybe till you go blue in the face. But I'm sure you do what you can and I do mine. You found your real enemy yet, or will you spend your time alienating the majority who can realistically topple these men, your potential allies whom you can't afford to lose before you even win them over?
Your 'parliamentary representatives' are smart and trying their best to get ASSK on side. That in my book deserves recognition as another current of the popular struggle even if I'm all for radical revolutionary change with no patience for the evolutionary process of 'incremental reform'.

Garrett Wrote:
"Unity like dialogue is meant to be two way traffic. Such deep mistrust and resentment of the Burman majority manifest in your comments can only be counterproductive leading to more of the same."

So you're saying the Burmans will respond better if I kiss their asses than if I kick their asses?

Sorry if the Burmans feel that my asking them to care for the people they have traditionally allowed to suffer is asking too much, but they have earned that "mistrust and resentment", now they will have to earn trust & gratitude.

It's two-way traffic, & there are no free rides!

Seriously Moe Aung, instead of chastizing me for trying to give them (the XYZ-citizens of Burma) a reason to struggle on each other's behalf, why don't you try educating them as to the actual severity of the suffering which they remain "largely unaware of"?

Lead, follow, or get out of the way of them learning the truth.

Moe Aung Wrote:

Witness what happened to the call for a second Panglong endorsed and taken up by ASSK.

Unity like dialogue is meant to be two way traffic. Such deep mistrust and resentment of the Burman majority manifest in your comments can only be counterproductive leading to more of the same.

We must unite and prepare for the next phase of the popular struggle if we are to turn defeat into victory.

Garrett Wrote:
Charlie wrote:

"You really have it out for the "apathetic" Burman majority, don't you?"

Yes, I "have it out for the apathetic Burman majority", & those among them who are NOT in denial know who I'm referring to.

Yes, it is sad that the Burman citizens who gave their lives for their countrymen in 1988 did so in vain when the Burman majority gave in to the regime violence & allowed the Burman-led SLORC/SPDC/faux-democratic regimes to take over & nullify/rig elections, jail political opponents, greedily rape Burma's resources, & persecute, murder, & exploit ethnic minority citizens ever since WW2 & up to today.

Yes, I seriously think the Burman majority should repeatedly protest until the regime & the world knows the truth of what the Burman majority stands for besides apathy.

Why, by the way, do you question my right to speak on behalf of Burma's ethnic minorities & WHY DON'T YOU speak out on their behalf instead of trying to minimize world perception of THEIR suffering?

Garrett Wrote:
Dear Moe Aung,

In the words of Gandhi: "You may never know what results come of your action, but if you do nothing, there will be no result".

I don't want to see thousands of senseless Burman deaths either, yet the death toll in the ethnic homelands is not a potential death toll, it is ongoing, & for the most part simply ignored by the Burman majority whose sons are the regime's tools of oppression.

Gandhi was wrong, for the Burman majority, doing nothing does have a result.

I hope you are not suggesting that the Burman majority should simply continue ignoring the ongoing rape, murder, torture, extortion, forced labour, forced starvation, exploitation & Burman persecution of the ethnic minorities along with the usual outcome.

Surely the Burman majority won't continue to think rather THEM than than US whatever the result.

I guess my point is, would it kill the Burman majority to make ethnic equality & national unity priorities? Or are they simply too Burman for that?

Charlie Wrote:

You really have it out for the "apathetic" Burman majority, don't you? Do you forget that they tried an Arab Spring-style uprising in 1988, and that it ended very badly? Do you seriously blame them for not wanting to go through the same thing again, especially after the abortive attempt at a repeat in 2007?

Why, by the way, do you feel entitled to speak on behalf of Burma's ethnic minorities? And do you honestly believe they are pure victims in all of this? What do you hope to achieve by lumping all Burmans in one category, and all ethnic minorities in another? You seem to be implying that Burman civilians are complicit in regime atrocities, and that minorities are inherently virtuous.

Remember 1988, when student fled to the border, only to find the Mon and Karen massacring each other, oblivious and indifferent to events in the rest of the country?

Moe Aung Wrote:

Hope you are not suggesting the Burman majority should just go out, march and protest to face the usual outcome. Surely you don't think rather them than the minorities whatever the result.

There is a Burmese expression - there's a right time, place and circumstance for everything good or bad. The people are unarmed, untrained and to face another certain defeat when unready does not make any sense. The Arab Spring is simply an inspiration, hence hope.

We all need to unite and prepare. It is of the utmost importance that ASSK does not squander this window of opportunity to strengthen her organization and People Power for the next phase of the struggle. Left wing adventurism is infantile and ultimately defeatist.

Garrett Wrote:
So far, the Burman majority (BM) makes their demands & Thein Sein (TS) says yes, but what we need to see, is what TS has done about the issues he has agreed to.

For example, we can see that 90%
(read ALL) of the political prisoners remain (unacknowledged) in prison, & that TS has simply thrown the BM a bone by releasing a handful who were jailed for political parking tickets.

What about the Myitsone Dam(s)? Will the regime actually demolish everything which has been built to this point? Or will this 10% success rate simply mean a temporary halt? In fact, has construction even been stopped?

The Irrawaddy should have a scoreboard showing the real-world status of the putative concessions TS's regime has made to the BM, & also list the important issues which the BM has been too shy to mention yet, such as ethnic equality & an end to persecution & exploitation in the ethnic homelands where Burmese citizens must still live in fear of Burma army attacks, rape, & extortion.

hans Wrote:
Absolutely right!!If real progress is the goal,then all political prisoners should be released...but Politics is Politics in Asia.
The henchmen of brutal regimes don,t like democracies as they could not enrich themselves from democratic societies!Be it in Burma,China,North Korea or Vietnam..all shocking regimes which manipulate/corrupt other " weak' countries for the benefit of a few.Vietnam is a good example of looking for "help" to the West against the bullying of big bother China,yet the Vietnamese system is itself criminal and the West unfortunately allows these system to flourish because of the sake of trade.
The WTO rules should be rewritten and should not allow brutal systems in it,s membership.China would be nothing..now it,s communist party is the richest in the world...what a laugh! China should be boycotted by the West as is Burma at the moment.

Zaw Min Wrote:
I can understand the government's concern of possible problems arising by releasing all political prisoners. But they need to understand that problems they are currently facing can only be resolved with the release of all political prisoners and start a genuine dialogue among all stakeholders that include these political prisoners as well as the ethnic minorities that they are now so intent to wipe out while trying to appease the west and stand-up against the Chinese. Simply going through the motion by starting some talks with Aung San Suu Kyi alone will not work unless followed through by a genuine talks with all stake holders. Democrats, please don't lose hope and keep on working. Government - wake up and continue doing what you started so that the beginning of a new era for our country continue to reaches its final destination that everyone wanted. The ball is still in the government's court and our new somewhat enlightened President should play it back.

Garrett Wrote:
To even hint at a "Burmese Spring" in comparison to the citizens of the arab nations who stuck their necks out FOR EACH OTHER is an insult to their bravery, & an exclamation point to the apathy of the Burman majority who have done nothing more than accept outright lies, chase dangling regime carrots, & continue to ignore the obvious ongoing persecution of their ethnic minority countrymen, carried out by their own Buddhist Burma army shock-troop sons.

Note to the Burman majority: Try to focus on reality!

You are allowing the regime to use you like a cheap whore, & then they will kick you to the curb.

Your "Hope" has only been feeding your ethnic minority countrymen's continuing despair.

What "Hope" can YOU ever have when YOU sanction the continuing human rights atrocities in the ethnic homelands with YOUR silent apathy?

If the regime can continue their crusade of ethnic persecution & terror with YOUR tacit approval, they can do ANYTHING they want, just like always.

Fred Wrote:
The government does far more damage to itself by holding political prisoners, than the political prisoners could ever do to it when released.

Mualcin Wrote:
This amnesty will not make Thein Sein government look better because releasing many criminals while leaving the innocent and politically motivated prisoners behind bars will make this government even look uglier/dirtier.

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