Corruption is endemic in the military-dominated Burmese economy, and army cadres have been enriched using the country’s natural resources, writes Simon Roughneen in Kuala Lumpur.
With at least 14 people dead after Burmese soldiers opened fire on protesters in Rangoon last Wednesday and Thursday – and fears that the toll could be much higher – Burma’s ‘‘people power’’ revolution seemed to be fading by this weekend.
Only a few thousand reportedly took to the streets, down from an estimated 100,000 before the government’s violent reaction. However, cracks in the ruling junta over the crushing of dissent mean that an olive branch may be offered to the pro-democracy movement.
Last Friday, diplomatic sources in Bangkok said that the junta’s second-in-command, General Maung Aye, was scheduled to meet democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, after dissenting from the bloody crackdown authorised by General Than Shwe, Burma’s military dictator.
As the killing proceeded, the UN Security Council failed in an attempt to impose western-led global sanctions against the Burmese regime.
Punitive measures were blocked by China and Russia last Wednesday evening, although agreement was reached on a watered-down press statement expressing ‘‘concern’’ and urging ‘‘restraint, especially from the government’’.
As the protests continued in Rangoon, Berlin-based anti-graft watchdog Transparency International released its annual corruption perception index last Wednesday. Burma and Somalia were singled out as the most corrupt states on its 180-strong list, beating off competition from Sudan and Zimbabwe.
After more than a week of daily marches that saw the number of protesters swell to over 100,000 in the capital alone, the military imposed a night-time curfew and banned gatherings of more than five people. Although protests had passed off peacefully last Tuesday, truckloads of soldiers loomed in the background.
By Wednesday, the threat became a reality as the protesters were driven from the streets, while prominent dissidents were arrested. Hundreds of monks were rounded up in monasteries all over the country, swelling the ranks of Burma’s estimated 1,200 political prisoners.
After initial vacillation, motivated partly by hardliner versus moderate power struggles between the top brass and partly by a reluctance to confront the monks, the show of force late last week proved that the army intends to crush the nascent rebellion.
But can all regiments be depended on to impose the dictates of the generals? Perhaps not, if a repeat of the 1988 bloodbath is needed to get the purple-clad monks, pink-robed nuns and thousands of civilians off the streets.
Public networking between the monks, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) – winner of the 1990 elections, which the generals subsequently overruled – and remnants of the 1988 democracy protest leadership is as broad an alliance for change as Burma has had.
But the problem is that corruption is endemic in the military dominated and mismanaged economy. The regime has bought off its own army cadres, using Burma’s plentiful natural resources and compliant neighbours to create an economic infrastructure that enriches the officers and generals.
As a result, they have a material rationale for clamping down on the pro-democracy movement and forestalling change.
The army sucks up 40 per cent of the state’s budget, according to the World Bank, and the military has extensive interests in the Burmese tourist industry and in large hotels.
Military personnel are given shares in giant corporations that employ hundreds of thousands of Burmese in joint ventures with foreign firms, as outlined in a 2005 Council on Foreign Relations report.
China, India and, to a lesser extent, Thailand, are the countries best placed to effect positive change. The two emerging economic giants have burgeoning energy needs, which Burma’s gas can partially satisfy.
China has a multitude of investments with Burmese military-owned businesses.
Ousted Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, now the owner of Manchester City FC, developed a series of tight business relationships with senior generals, while Thai people endured a heroin and metamphetamine addiction crisis as Burma became the world’s second largest opium producer under the generals.
US president George W Bush announced tougher sanctions against Burma at the UN last Tuesday. First Lady Laura Bush has taken an unusually personal interest in Burma, even phoning UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon over the issue, before the monks took to the streets.
But short of invading, neither the US nor the west can affect the outcome in Burma without the collaboration of China and India.
India, the world’s largest democracy, has shown more interest in importing Burmese oil than exporting its own political system.
Last Friday, following criticism over the lack of any public expression of concern, India issued a statement saying that the ‘‘process of political return and national reconciliation [in Burma] should be more inclusive and broad based’’.
China wants stability, to keep the gas pipes open. A foreign ministry spokesman said the Chinese government hoped that Burma’s rulers could ‘‘maintain stability and resolve the issue in its own way’’, ac cording to news agency reports from Beijing. In 1988, 3,000 people died when the Burmese military last sought to resolve the issue ‘‘in its own way’’.
Last week, killings resumed, as Than Shwe’s junta reverted to form, backed by US$2 billion in Chinese military assistance since 1989.With the 2008 Beijing Olympics looming, it was assumed that China would not want the negative publicity arising from a bloody crackdown in Burma. But it appears that the junta is seeking to ‘‘maintain stability’’ by brute force, and Beijing is tacitly approving.
Just as Robert Mugabe – an honorary professor at China’s Foreign Affairs University – mismanaged ‘‘Africa’s breadbasket’’ into a state of hyper inflation and near-famine, so Burma, formerly known as ‘‘Asia’s rice bowl’’, has seen basic living standards deteriorate drastically.
At the time of independence, Burma had the best schools and literacy rates in the region. With its array of natural resources, this should have augured well for the new state.
But, just as in 1988, people who are feeling the pinch are now taking to the streets. Burma’s democratic deficit was exacerbated by an overnight hike in fuel prices in August, as oil and gas prices doubled. While initial rumblings were led by student activists, the monks became involved after heavy-handed treatment by troops.
The stand-off has pushed Burma’s two most powerful institutions into head-on conflict: the 400,000-strong, heavily-subsidised military against the 300,000-plus Buddhist monks who retain the spiritual allegiance of the majority of Burma’s people.
Almost 90 per cent of Burma’s people are Buddhist, and civilian prime minister U Nu made Buddhism the state religion in 1961, even though Buddhism was already privileged under the 1947 constitution.
Buddhist partiality alienated non-Buddhist minorities in what is a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional country. But various ethnic insurgencies have been motivated by the brutality of military rule, endemic poverty and marginalisation imposed by the junta.
The Karen – more than 30 per cent 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 200,000Karen refugees live in Thailand, while members of the mainly Buddhist Shan ethnic group have also been the victims of mass rape and forced relocation to allow ‘‘development’’ projects, such as hydroelectric dams to proceed, and to ensure easy access to natural resources, such as timber and gold.
As many as two million Shan have fled to Thailand during the years of military rule. Reports suggest that two battle-hardened units usually deployed against minorities in the provinces were sent to the streets of Rangoon on Friday, as the KNU issued a call for non-Burmese ethnic groups to support the monks and protesters.
The military has sought to claim moral legitimacy over the years by subsidising Buddhism, mainly by renovating temples. But the junta’s often gauche patronage of religion has won little but derision from monks and laypeople alike.
Since the protests began, monks have refused alms from soldiers – a sort of Buddhist excommunication, and a gesture highlighting Burmese distaste for their unelected leaders.
Over the weekend, the army moved to close down internet access, and to undermine the bloggers supplying dissidents and journalists in Thailand and elsewhere with updates on events on the ground. Troops raided hotels looking for clandestine journalists. The junta is worried, but has taken the initiative.
If the protests are to succeed, without Beijing turning the screw on its ally, some generals and troops will need to break ranks, as happened in the 1986 Philippines ‘‘people power’’ revolution, which overthrew the Marcos regime.Show