Cracks in army needed to unseat Generals
The Buddhist-led anti-military protests in Burma have faded as an army crackdown has prevented monks from getting onto the streets. Fears that hundreds may have died in the brutal reaction to peaceful protests, has cowed the demonstrators, for now at least.
After more than a week of protests in Rangoon and other cities, on Wednesday September 26 the Burmese military dictatorship lived up to threats to “take action” against protesters, with over 14 deaths reported by last weekend and dozens of bloodied Buddhist monks reeling from the military’s counter-action on the city’s streets.
Although the protests were led by monks, by Thursday September 27 the proportion of monks versus laypeople than in previous days, after hundreds of were rounded up and troops surrounded monasteries.
UN Envoy Ibrahim Gambari visited Burma over last weekend, but despite meeting the democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, the former Nigerian foreign minister was not permitted meet the military dictator General Than Shwe. Thus far, mission failed.
Last week, the UN Security Council sought to impose western-led global sanctions against the Burmese regime, but this was blocked by China and Russia on Wednesday evening. Agreement was reached on a watered-down press statement expressing “concern” and urging “restraint especially from the government.”
With foreign journalists generally not allowed into Burma (Myanmar), the regime has in the past couple of days sought to shut down the internet and mobile phone network in order to stop the flow of images and data out of the country, chiefly to dissident groups in Thailand. A Japanese photojournalist was shot by troops in a grisly scene captured on video by protestors, and the army swept Rangoon’s hotels looking for reporters operating secretly.
But after Suu Kyi made her first public appearance in four years – on Saturday September 22 she greeted protesters outside the building in which she has been under house arrest since 2003, the military dictatorship has faced down the greatest threat to its long monopoly on power since it crushed a 1988 uprising.
Throughout the nine-day colourful display of defiance, thousands of saffron-clad monks were joined by hundreds of nuns robed in pink and thousands more civilians in the largest display of public discontent in Burma in two decades.
Rallies began last month across Burma as people reacted to exorbitant fuel costs after the regime doubled petrol prices and raised gas prices by 500 percent. Like the last time people took to the streets, in 1988, harsh economic conditions sparked off the simmering resentment felt by long-suffering Burmese against their military overlords.
Protests were led at first by former student activists, but most of these had been arrested or were in hiding when the monks began their protests last Tuesday week. During the early stages of the protest, the monk versus military dynamic was accelerated when the army roughed up some young Buddhist clerics, with monks holding government officials hostage for hours in retaliation. Since then, the young monks have formed the revolutionary vanguard.
One of the 20 poorest country’s in the world, Burma’s military has spent heavily on itself – 40 percent of the national budget – and done little to boost general economic growth and development.
Regarded as rife with corruption and mismanaged by its military, the Burmese economy is now noted for being the world’s second largest opium producer. On 26 September, graft watchdog Transparency International labeled Burma (along with Somalia) as the most corrupt state on its 180-country annual Corruption Perceptions Index.
Governance in Burma is further compromised by the military-led oppression of minorities. Ethnic Karen militias have staged long-running rebellions in response, but the brutal counter-insurgency campaigns conducted by the regime have raised allegations of mass displacement of people and gross human rights abuses.
While the military retains tight control over the media and carefully filters information entering the country, it has encouraged western tourists to visit Burma’s thousands of ornate pagodas and plentiful beaches. However, allegations of forced labor being deployed to build roads and airports have lengthened the shadow cast over the country’s attractiveness, and Suu Kyi has advised that visiting Burma would effectively subsidize military rule.
Burma has been a military dictatorship since 1962. While 1988 unrest forced General Ne Win to step down, rivals in the military led by current leader General Than Shwe used the opportunity to move in, restoring martial law.
In 1989, the military renamed the country Myanmar, and gave the capital the name Yangon – the rationale being that Myanmar approximated more closely to “Myanma,” the literary name for the country, as opposed to “Bama,” the oral, colloquial title from which Burma is derived.
With Buddhism is central to Burmese identity, the military has sought to salve some moral legitimacy over the years by subsidizing Buddhism – mainly by renovating temples. But this has done little to legitimise a regime that has ignored the democratically-expressed will of the people in the 1990 elections. In 1990, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won multiparty democratic elections, but the result was ignored by the army, while Suu Kyi herself has spent much of the intervening years in various forms of incarceration.
Burma is a member state of ASEAN – the Association of South-East Asian Nations – which has typically avoided confrontation with the Rangoon junta over its undemocratic and often violent rule, citing the principle of non-interference in the sovereign affairs of a member state. ASEAN member states such as Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia have strong business interests with the Rangoo junta, with Thailand’s own military regime getting 33% of its electricity from Burmese gas.
Western influence has its limits. Pleas for democratic reform and the imposition of sanctions by the US and Europe have had little effect on the junta.
China and India, which buy Myanmar’s natural gas and other resources, have more clout. China wants stability, in keeping with its growing need for natural resources. But stability has meant some leeway for the junta to use lethal force on the protestors – hardly a surprise given that China has cut deals with brutal regimes elsewhere – such as in buying 60% of Sudan’s oil, and with Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe
India has kept silent about the events unfolding in Myanmar – but not on its real interests in Burma. The ‘World’s Largest Democracy’ sent its oil minister to Rangoon at the height of the protests last week, signing 3 oil exploration deals, and not a word from New Delhi about the oppression taking place in its neighbour.
But China has the most sway over the generals, and has protected the junta from western diplomatic and economic punishment. In January 2007, China vetoed a UN resolution calling for more freedom, democracy and human rights in Burma, on the grounds that it was arbitrary to single out Burma when “similar problems exist in many other countries as well.” Since 1989, China has supplied weapons and military equipment worth US$2 billion to Burma, and bilateral trade doubled between 1999 and 2005 to US$1.2 billion.
China has a vested interest in maintaining stability in Burma, for economic reasons, and to ensure that a pro-democracy movement on its southern border does not gain momentum and set an example to Chinese citizens on the eve of the Communist Party conference, due next month.
While the protests have faded for now, they are not automatically finished. But any success will mean a split in the army, at the top level, where some senior generals are thought to be angry over Shwe’s preference for a brutal crackdown. Junior level attutides are impossible to gauge, but if a repeat of the 1988 bloodshed, when 3,000 died during a military clampdown on protestors, seems likely, some foot-soldiers and generals could possibly balk.
Alternatively, vested interests may prevail. Given the lucrative military-business connections in Burma, with the army having large stakes in the tourism infrastructure and privileged access to shares in Burma’s large conglomerates, it may be that the army fails to see the benefit in aiding any movement for change.
But, in 1986, Catholic priests and nuns took to the streets in the Philippines, akin to how the Buddhist monks have led the charge in Burma. On that occasion, the People Power Revolution succeeded in taking down the corrupt Marcos dictatorship, after senior army figures backed the protests, led by General Fidel Ramos. A similar figure may have to emerge in Burma is the protests are to dislodge the Generals, or even lead to some compromise between the military and the pro-democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi.Show