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Sunday, Feb. 10, 2008


Stricken land of soldiers and slaves

Special to The Japan Times

The Saffron Revolution is Burma's 9/11; much will never be the same again after the killing, arrest and torture of monks by the government.

News photo
Looking over the rooftops of Yangon (above), with the gilded Sule Pagoda, where many demonstrators gathered last September, on the right, and the Town Hall on the left, where many were initially jailed; a sign (below) which includes the word Tatmadaw ("the military") prompted old Burmese men to say to me: "But they already have." LEWIS NORMAN PHOTOS
News photo

During August-September 2007, the government jailed dissidents who led the initial rallies and quashed subsequent mass demonstrations that swept through Burma's major cities, arresting thousands and killing at least 31 people. The government continues to chase down those demonstrators and dissidents.

In 2008, Amnesty International reports that at least 700 people remain in detention and 80 may be victims of "forced disappearance." The U.N. Special Rapporteur for human rights in Burma, Sergio Pinheiro, suggests large numbers of monks may have been cremated.

The government's decision on Aug. 15, 2007 to cut fuel subsidies, causing a sudden surge in fuel prices (gasoline by 66 percent, diesel 100 percent and compressed natural gas 500 percent), was the spark that ignited a nation waiting to explode. Sporadic protests in August against surges in commodity prices morphed into large-scale rallies in September against 45 years of military misrule.

Then in 2008, the people of Burma woke up to another nasty surprise from the government — annual satellite TV fees hiked from $5 to nearly $800, equivalent to a university lecturer's yearly salary. This media muzzling reflected official displeasure with foreign coverage of political events in Burma, dubbed by the regime as "a skyful of lies."

The regime blames the foreign media for inciting anti-government demonstrations. Unlike the even more brutal crackdown in 1988 when the military killed more than 3,000 protesters, the Saffron Revolution was beamed around the world and back to the Burmese people in real time.

Some demonstrators may have miscalculated that the military would refrain from brutality against monks on prime-time news. However, via satellite TV the Burmese saw for themselves, as the world looked on in horror, how the regime deals with peaceful protests — monks or not. Clearly, the despots decided, such coverage must be priced out of reach of ordinary citizens to prevent them from learning the truth about their government's crimes.

Grim statistics

Despite such muzzling, however, the despair of Burma's people is evident in the grim statistics of a crushing poverty that envelops all but the privileged elite. More than 75 percent of this ill-starred nation of 56 million people live below the poverty line, and 10 percent of children die before they turn 5. Annual per capita income is about $230, half that in Bangladesh. Malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS are endemic, health care is woeful and the humanitarian crisis is even more dire among the non-Burmese ethnic groups living in war-ravaged border areas.

Meanwhile, galloping inflation is pushing the prices of basic necessities beyond the reach of many. The U.N. World Food Programme estimates that 5 million lack adequate food, though it only has the capacity to feed a tenth of those in need. For even middle-class Burmese, their food budgets now consume some 70-90 percent of household income.

How much longer can the junta rule Burma at gunpoint? The Burmese people have been asking the same question for the past two decades.

The military controls the streets, but at considerable cost. It contends with angry monks who predict the monk-slayers will be reborn as "mangy shit-eating mutts," one persecuted monk told me recently. People also said they saw stray dogs with pictures of Burma's dictator, Than Shwe, hanging from their necks.

Many Burmese say their country is a tinderbox. The junta's "roadmap to democracy," enshrining a paramount political role for the military, no longer seems remotely viable. As one elderly ex-official told me, "This won't solve anything. It is a back-to-Sparta constitution. It will bind our hands and feet and tape shut our mouths. Burma will become a land of soldiers and slaves."

In Burma today there is widespread outrage among a sullen but defiant people directed against the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). In Yangon, the U.S. Embassy's Shari Villarosa told me that it might take less than people now imagine to bring about substantial change — if some key players become sidelined one way or another.

The leadership is aging (Than Shwe, for example, is 74), and, Villarosa notes, there is a great deal of mutual distrust within the junta.

The Saffron Revolution has drawn unprecedented international attention to the plight of the Burmese people. But although this aims to promote a democratic transition involving power-sharing between the military, the democratic opposition and ethnic groups, it will require patience and sustained international assistance.

There is widespread skepticism among Burmese, however, that a regime willing to kill monks will cede power, if only to avoid retribution. There are no signs that the regime is ready to proceed beyond damage control and engage in substantive negotiations about a transition that deviates from its own roadmap.

The U.N. efforts to promote national reconciliation and dialogue between the junta and Aung San Suu Kyi have little momentum. The junta is giving the cold shoulder to U.N. Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari. Moreover, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate held under house arrest, suggested at the end of January 2008 that the government is only stringing her along and does not appear committed to a time-bound dialogue aimed at national reconciliation.

International pressure on Burma's junta raised hopes for a democratic transition, but Aung warns that those expectations may not be met and people should be prepared for the worst. Alas, the worst is something the Burmese know all too well.

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