Burma: Colonels vs clerics – ISN

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The coming days will be crucial in Burma (Myanmar) depending on how the military junta chooses to respond to demonstrations led by Buddhist monks that have gained serious critical mass.

– By Simon Roughneen in Dili

After more than a week of protests in Rangoon (Yangon) and other cities, on Wednesday the Burmese military dictatorship lived up to threats to “take action” against protesters, with between four and eight deaths reported and dozens of bloodied Buddhist monks reeling from the military’s counter-action on the city’s streets.

The killings apparently took place near the Shwedagon Pagoda, Buddhist Burma’s holiest site. The ruling junta stated that one person died during the show of force by the security services.

The latest reports on Thursday say that protesters have again been confronted by troops, who have fired warning shots at a crowd reportedly containing a much lower proportion of monks versus laypeople than in previous days. Also on Thursday, the military promised “extreme action” should protesters not disperse.

Meanwhile, 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.”

After over a week of daily marches that saw numbers of protesters swell to over 100,000 in Rangoon, with unknown thousands more in other cities across the country, on Tuesday the military imposed a night-time curfew and prohibited gatherings of more than five people. Protests passed peacefully on Tuesday, but truckloads of soldiers lurked menacingly.

On Wednesday, threats were made real as protesters were forced off the streets, some taken away in trucks, and others, mostly prominent dissidents, arrested. Hundreds of monks were rounded up at monasteries across the country in the early hours of Thursday morning.

With foreign journalists 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.

Protests in context: The deficit is not just democratic

But just days after pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi made her first public appearance in four years, greeting protesters outside the building in which she has been under house arrest since 2003, the military dictatorship is now facing the greatest threat to its long monopoly on power since it crushed a 1988 uprising.

Throughout the nine-day colorful 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.

On the seventh day of demonstrations led by Buddhists monks, Sunday saw stakes raised as Burmese civilians answered exhortations made by the All Burma Monks Alliance to join them on the streets. Monks were reported to be parading through a number of cities on Sunday, notably Mandalay – the country’s second largest city and center of Buddhist learning – where an estimated 10,000 people, including 4,000 monks, had marched on Saturday.

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.

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. 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 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.

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.

Critical mass or brinkmanship?

Monks initially advised civilians not to get involved in the protests. However, apparently galvanized by regime’s uncertainty, the protests have branched out.

With such critical mass developing, the military has been forced decide of it can risk letting the protests continue and then concede democratic reforms – or confront the monks on the streets. The latter path has apparently been chosen.

Buddhism is central to Burmese identity, and the military has sought to salve some moral legitimacy over the years by subsidizing Buddhism mainly by renovating temples.

Dissidents involved in the 1988 uprising are attempting to forge links with the monks, according to an interview in London’s Sunday Telegraph published last weekend.

This could mean that the monks are fronting the wider pro-democracy movement, knowing that it is almost taboo for the military to confront them in what is a staunchly Buddhist country, where otherwise civil unrest typically meets with a bloody and uncompromising clampdown by the military.

Whether the alliance can successfully force the military’s hand remains to be seen. Brinkmanship by the monks might not mean that the regime is now on the brink of collapse.

The junta’s China card

Burma is a member state of ASEAN – the Association of South-East Asian Nations – whose Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong was quoted in the Financial Times on September as saying: “I hope the relevant authorities in Myanmar [Burma] will not take any strong action and turn the protests into a big confrontation.”

ASEAN 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.

The UN Security Council is attempting to send Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari to Rangoon, but whether or not he will be allowed into the country was unclear at the time of writing. And 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 how this demand will translate into policy by the Rangoon junta – which is also courting an increasingly resource-hungry India – remains unclear.

India has kept silent about the events unfolding in Myanmar.

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.

Just as Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe has mismanaged “Africa’s breadbasket” into a state of hyperinflation and now near-famine, Burma, formerly known as “Asia’s Rice Bowl,” has seen its basic living standards deteriorate so much that people may feel there is nothing to lose by answering the monks’ call to “struggle peacefully against the evil military dictatorship till its complete downfall.”

Coming days crucial

What is crucial is how the military responds.

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.

How this dynamic plays out over the next days will be crucial.

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