Editorial_November 2007
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Editorial_November 2007

By Aung Zaw NOVEMBER, 2007 - VOLUME 15 NO.11


Keeping up the Momentum on Burma

The September uprising and on-going crisis in Burma will perhaps prove to be a turning point in modern Burmese political history, if we nurture and cultivate the events in the direction that we all desire—the birth of a democratic and prosperous Burma.

As a witness to the carnage in 1988, I was impressed to see the peaceful gathering of Buddhist monks in September and then appalled to report on the brutal and systematic crackdown on Buddhist monks and the people.

As a student activist, I was on the streets in Rangoon in 1988 and spent time in one of Burma’s gulags. Nineteen years later I found myself as a journalist reporting on another uprising. But there were some striking differences between the two events.  

In 1988, the uprising started with bloodshed and ended in more blood. This time, it started with a peaceful gathering and ended with bloody suppression.

In 1988, the political landscape was also different. The international community and human rights watch dogs were still figuring out where Burma was located. Burma’s neighbors readily exploited its natural resources and protected the generals with a “constructive engagement” policy. China stepped in and the status quo of the regime was preserved.

This time, the peaceful demonstrations and the killings caught world attention. International and exiled media played a key role in highlighting news from Burma.

This time, Burma’s neighbors joined the condemnation and expressed “revulsion” at what was going on in Rangoon and elsewhere. Singapore’s statesman Lee Kuan Yew called Burmese leaders “rather dumb” in handling the economy and said the regime wouldn’t survive indefinitely.

The UN and Western nations acted promptly, and on this occasion China, the regime’s major ally, could not veto a presidential statement on Burma released by the UN Security Council. 

Although world reaction and condemnation were swift they are still not enough. We need more than official rhetoric if change is to occur in Burma. Unlike 1988, the regime was going strong both financially and diplomatically. There were few threats to the lifeline of the generals and the regime. 

The US has imposed new sanctions on Burma, it is true, and the cronies who are close to the ruling generals are feeling the heat. But Burma’s neighbors remain unmoved, apart from issuing one statement of “revulsion.”

The regime is cleverly exploiting the differences among the nations in the region. Snr-Gen Than Shwe and his hard-line generals still think they can hide behind China and Asean nations while manipulating the roles of the UN and its special envoy. As Burma’s main economic partners, China, India, Thailand and its Asean partners hold the key to a Burma solution.

The UN envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, went to Burma and was taken on a tour of the northern part of the country before being admitted to a meeting with the generals, who still feel they can afford to ignore international criticism.

The regime continues its crackdown while claiming to have restored “normalcy.” It has also stepped up its diplomatic offensive by appointing a “liaison minister” for contacts between detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the regime.

That’s an advance on past practice, when “liaison officers” merely fixed the air-conditioning and the television reception at Suu Kyi’s lakeside house, not daring to report back to their boss how impressed they were to meet “The Lady.” Who was going to be fooled now by the appointment of a “liaison officer?”

It is understandable, therefore, that the regime’s actions after the crackdown were met with skepticism and questions about the regime’s honesty.

Fundamental changes have undeniably occurred since the September crackdown. It is impossible to put everything back in the box. Burma’s oldest Buddhist institution has been the victim of violent oppression, and it will be difficult to restore confidence and trust.

But, worryingly, news on Burma is slipping from the front page of the world’s press, and time is again on the regime’s side. Monks and others arrested in the demonstrations remain in detention centers and prisons, while a manhunt is underway for key activists.

A terror campaign has the whole country in its grip. Depression, despair, fear and uncertainty govern the lives of those Burmese who want to see change in their country.

It is of the utmost importance now to keep the Burma issue alive and maintain the momentum, creating space for the Burmese people. 

As long as Snr-Gen Than Shwe and his cronies feel they have no need to worry about tomorrow, they are unlikely to make political concessions.

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