A long week in Burma – ISN

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A long week in Burma

With harsh jail terms for activists and energy-hungry countries eyeing its oil and gas, Burma’s military junta stays the course, writes Simon Roughneen for ISN Security Watch.

PORT MORESBY–It was a long week, but nothing compared the 65-year jail terms handed to at least 80 Burmese dissidents and pro-democracy activists during the week of 17 November. The UN and US have both dismissed the trials – which were conducted in typical secrecy since July – as opaque and lacking due process. Some of those imprisoned include leaders of a 1988 revolt against military rule, which was crushed with brutal efficiency by the Burma junta, while still more are some of those cited for their role in last year’s Saffron Revolution.

As ever with Burma’s opaque regime, an apparent logic was lacking in the sentences. A well-known poet, Saw Wai, was sentenced to two years imprisonment for “inciting crimes against public tranquility.” He was first arrested in January after his poem mocking junta leader General Than Shwe entitled “February 14,” was published. However, more than somewhat incongruously, a blogger who posted a lese-majeste against Shwe, was hit with an astonishing 20-year sentence.

A common thread through the harsher sentences is that those charged used the internet to disseminate their message, perhaps an admission of weakness by the reclusive military rulers, and an acknowledgement that they are not too sure of themselves when it comes to the impact of communications technology on political affairs.

As if the scales of injustice were not sufficiently loaded against the accused, three defense lawyers, Nyi Nyi Htwe, Aung Thein and Khin Maung Shein, were imprisoned for between four and six months for contempt of court after complaining of unfair treatment. Four other defense lawyers, Kyaw Hoe, Maung Maung Latt, Myint Thaung and Khin Htay Kyew have been barred from representing their clients.

What is sure is that those convicted face a desperate plight – incarceration in scattered and remote jails and prison camps, far away from family and friends.

A government against its people

At least 2000 political prisoners languish in Burmese prisons, with pro-democracy icon and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi well into her second decade of house arrest, imposed after her National League for Democracy (NLD) won a resounding victory in 1990 elections, only to see the military, in power for most of Burma’s post-colonial era, ignore the result and lock up the winner.

The court rulings will keep the students and monks off the streets and off the ballot papers for the 2010 elections, perhaps evidence that the junta fears these opponents more than Suu Kyi.

It is one more salvo fired by a regime against its own people. Domestic unrest in Burma has generally pitted the lowland majority Burmese – albeit in the guise of an unrepresentative and exploitative military dictatorship – against highland minorities such as the Shan, Kachin and Karen.

The US has appointed a new envoy to address the Burma issue at the international level, perhaps seeking to create a multiparty negotiation framework similar to the Six Party Talks on North Korea. Meanwhile, US and EU sanctions are having an impact on the regime, but perhaps only to drive them into commercial arms of China, and to a lesser extent India’s and Burma’s fellow ASEAN member-states.

The government is moving to erase any viable opposition ahead of scheduled elections in 2010, which even at this stage look likely to be a Soviet-style landslide for the incumbents. International actors – even China – have called for the polls to be free and fair. Ultimately, however, Beijing values “stability” above all else to protect its lucrative and strategically vital investments in Burma. China will only change tack if it feels that military rule has outlived its usefulness, or if it perceives the junta as becoming vulnerable to a counter-coup.

With sanctions deterring most – but not all – US and European investment, local replacements have been easy to find, with an energy-hungry China eager to lap up Burma’s plentiful oil and gas, not to mention hardwoods and gemstones, and maybe even some of the country’s lucrative opium and methamphetamine trade, which also keeps some of Burma’s ethnic minority rebel movements in pocket money.

There is a bigger picture: China is dependent on Middle Eastern oil – far more so than the US, which sources from Latin America and West Africa as well as clients in the Gulf. Most of China’s petroleum imports pass through one of the world’s busiest waterways; the Straits of Molucca, a narrow stretch of water between Burma and Malaysia. Beijing fears that in the event of a dispute with the US, Washington could blockade the Straits, depriving China of fuel.

China’s pre-emptive strike involves the Shwe Gas pipeline, intended to cross the length of Burma to transport fuel to China’s landlocked southern Yunnan province. The project is designed to open the country’s access to the Indian Ocean for some fuel shipments and circumvent the congested Straits of Molucca, through which over 70 percent of its current oil and gas imports travel.

Other regional states are eager to get in on the game. India, the world’s largest democracy, has been competing with Beijing for the junta’s collective ear, while Thailand and Singapore have extensive bilateral and commercial links with the military in Burma, which of course controls business in that country.

All of which means, sanctions or not, the junta has plenty of cash to maintain its bulky military, which accounts for at least 40 percent of national spending. Not only does the largesse keep potentially disenchanted or rebellious officers loyal by giving them access to business deals, it also keeps the junta in power and ensures that any opposition is crushed. Estimates point to the Shwe regime earning US$3.5 billion in gas sales alone in recent years.

Ethnic minorities bearing the brunt

Since the saffron-clad monks took to the streets in early autumn 2007, international focus has drifted from the ongoing war the military has conducted against ethnic minorities, many of whom are non-Burmese speaking Christians, unlike the majority Buddhists. Hundreds of thousands of people have been driven from their homes over the past two decades, some to refugee camps in Thailand.

The Karen, more than 30 percent of whom are Christian, have fought Rangoon since 1949, but ethnic and religious differences did not prevent the Karen National Union (KNU) from working with pro-democracy protesters in 1988. This resulted in a brutal military crackdown on the Karen and other border minorities by the generals. Around 200,000 Karen refugees have fled to Thailand.

Thailand also hosts as many as two million Shan. Like the Karen, members of this mainly Buddhist ethnic group have been the victims of mass rape and forced relocation to allow for “development” projects, such as hydroelectric dams to proceed, and to ensure easy access to natural resources.

Almost unmentioned in international media, on 30 October the army attacked a Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) base at Kler Law Seh. The KNLA is the armed wing of the KNU. Local villagers had to flee their homes to an as-yet unknown fate.

China has cautiously joined some of the calls for change to come to Burma. However, with 2010 elections already looking like a farce, the only change might be the regime winning over 90 percent of the vote. Otherwise, for pro-democracy activists, ethnic minority groups and those whose lives will take years to rebuild after Cyclone Nargis, the only change will be for the worse.

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