Burma crisis

The Burmese military regime - in power since 1962 - has started to crack down on protests and resistance led by Buddhist monks. Tom Fawthrop reports from Thailand

September 20, 2007
6 min read

The Burmese military regime – in power since 1962 – has started to crack down on protests and resistance led by Buddhist monks. Protesting monks have been baton-charged, beaten and tear-gassed. Some monks have been covered in blood.

On Wednesday night, 25 September, truckloads of the much-feared military took up strategic positions around the main city and former capital Rangoon. It was the ninth day of rolling protests against the hated junta.

Not since 1988 has the 45-year rule of the generals in Burma faced such a determined challenge. Daily processions of saffron-clad monks, a sit-in at a police station, a nationwide network of protesting bonzes calling for democratic change had taken the junta by surprise.

The tragedy of Burma

The snowballing demonstrations were triggered by the fivefold increase in fuel prices. The average citizen of Rangoon can no longer even afford a bus home. One third of the children under the age of five suffer malnutrition. Millions have been reduced to only one meal a day. The tragedy of Burma is fast approaching African dimensions of deprivation created by an oriental despotism..

After independence Burma, along with the Philippines, led south east Asia in literacy, education and development, far ahead of Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand..

But since 1962 and the military coup staged by General Ne Win, a potentially wealthy country with abundant natural resources, including oil and natural gas, has slithered backwards under the guidance of a totally inept, kleptocratic and brutal junta.

The only chance for Burmese people to express their will – an election in 1990 – resulted in a landslide for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of national hero and independence leader Aung San. The generals had miscalculated. They proceeded to dismiss the election results, and have carried on as an illegal regime ever since.

The snowballing protest has long overtaken the immediate concerns about the impossible cost of living. In towns across the country people have come out onto the streets, braving the dictatorship and challenging the state of fear that has ruled for decades.

In Rangoon, the capital, the monks fearlessly swept past the police barricades around the house of the perpetual hostage Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic leader of the nation, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who has been held under house arrest ever since her election victory in 1990. Aung San Suu Kyi. held an impromptu meeting with the monks and joined them in prayers.

‘The Lady’, as everyone calls her, still remains the great hope for a peaceful transition to a new Burma.

Nonviolent resistance

A potent feature of the protests has been the declaration by the monks union of ‘patam nikkujjana kamm’ – a boycott of alms from members of the military regime, or simply upturning their bowls instead of collecting food. This sanction includes a refusal to conduct funeral and weddings services and a ban on other Buddhist ceremonies for members of the military – an equivalent to excommunication in the Christian church.

Attempts by the generals to curry favour with temples to offer alms and donate handsome gifts to senior abbots has failed to win the blessing of the majority of monks.

Buddhism, as with other major religions, can concern itself with rather more than inner peace and spiritual paths to enlightenment and salvation. Although he shunned worldly affairs, Buddha stressed the need for good governance and good rulers. Nonviolent protest and resistance are their tools for change.

Monks were prominent against British colonial rule in this predominantly Buddhist nation. Two well-known monks, U Wisara and U Ottama, were imprisoned by the British for their nonviolent resistance; U Wisara died in jail after 166 days of a hunger strike

Monks versus the military

In Burma the chances of any so-called ‘velvet revolution’ appears to be highly unlikely. In 1988, besieged by massive popular protests, the generals ordered their troops to shoot unarmed demonstrators in their thousands.

Since the 1988 bloodbath the generals have massively expanded their army and security services, and switched the capital from Rangoon to the obscure, ultra-secure town of Naypyitaw, well-protected from the people that they rule. They have never deviated from their iron-fisted determination to cling onto power despite international lobbying for dialogue with the opposition – intimidated but never silenced.

Another ‘people-power’ uprising of the sort that ended the Asian tyrannies of former presidents Marcos in the Philippine and Suharto in Indonesia has been conjured up in the dreams and hopes of a despairing nation. But sadly the odds appear to be stacked against them. The Burmese military, the bulwark of the regime, has so far remained curiously immune from political factions and splits, indifferent to the misery of the people.

International pressure: can sanctions work?

The Burmese junta is a pariah regime sustained by routine torture of dissidents and the systematic use of forced labour that has been repeatedly condemned in reports of the International Labour Organisation.

There are sanctions from Washington and limited sanctions from the UK and the EU, which the UK Burma Campaign considers to be woefully inadequate. Pressure from pro-democracy groups has forced several British companies to withdraw their investment in the regime.

However, Asian countries have shown no such scruples. The junta’s chief supporter, China, has provided more than $2 billion of military aid to one of the largest armies

in south east Asia. In return, energy-hungry China has tapped into Burma’s rich natural resources – oil, natural gas, and minerals.

Burma is a member of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), with Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand also engaged in profitable plunder of Burma’s resources – all in the name of a so-called ‘constructive engagement’ policy. ASEAN claims only quiet diplomacy can bring about democratic change in Burma, not sanctions.

ASEAN regional summits have politely asked Burma, to release Aung San Suu Kyi and move towards reconciliation and elections. Time and again the stonewalling of the generals has exposed this approach as futile.

If massive bloodshed is to be averted, the south east Asian nations, the EU and others all need to act now in putting human rights before trade and in support of the heroism of Buddhist monks in Burma.

Just as the Zimbabwean disaster should be on the conscience of Africa, so Burma is the special responsibility of ASEAN. The generals need to be told that more atrocities will result in real punishment: kicking them out of Asean and a suspension of all tourist links for starters. It is above all the voice of Asian countries – Asean members, India and China – that should be heading efforts to avert a looming disaster.

Note: Burma/Myanmar: Burma is no longer the official name but as it is still the popular name of the country I stick with it.

Tom Fawthrop is an author and journalist based in Thailand. Getting Away With Genocide, his recent book on the Khmer Rouge tribunal – about genocide and justice in Cambodia – is published by Pluto Books


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