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Burma's freedom cry
Sify.com[Thursday, September 27, 2007 18:11]
By Claude Arpi
Born in Angoulême, France, Claude Arpi's real quest began 33 years ago with a journey to the Himalayas. Since then he has been an enthusiastic student of the history of Tibet, China and the subcontinent.

After graduating from Bordeaux University in 1974, he decided to live in India and settled in the South where he is still staying with his Indian wife and young daughter. He is the author of numerous English and French books including The Fate of Tibet, La politique française de Nehru: 1947-1954, Born in Sin: the Panchsheel Agreement and India and Her Neighbourhood.

He writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. This is his outburst on the recent military situation in Myanmar.

The recent demonstrations by monks and nuns of Burma (now called Myanmar by the dictatorial
regime of Yangon) remind me of the demonstrations in Lhasa in 1987, when hundreds of monks took to the streets to beg for more freedom. The Tibetans were then ruthlessly suppressed by the Chinese People’s Armed Police.

Ironically, both Tibetans and Burmese are led by a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who sees conciliation and compromise as the basis of any sustainable solution of their respective problems. In both cases, on the other side of the fence is a totalitarian regime: in Tibet, Communist China itself; in Burma, a military junta supported by Beijing for economic, strategic and other reasons.

The increase in the price of petroleum products announced on August 15, 2007 by the generals drastically aggravated the precarious life of the ordinary folks in this 53 million predominantly Buddhist nation.

One can understand the common man’s anger when the fuel rates (petrol, diesel, cooking gas) were, in one go, multiplied by five. It further triggered a snowball effects with other prices increasing, particularly the cost of public transport, but also meat (15 per cent), rice (10 per cent) or eggs (50 per cent).

Images: Crackdown on monks

The first demonstrations in August were thinly attended for the simple reason that the man in the street is still too afraid to join in any kind of mass protests. One former student who participated in the 1988 movement and spent four years in jail told The Telegraph: “In 1988, people put their faith in the students, there was much bloodshed, people sacrificed lives, but nothing happened.” He added: “This time, people are watching cautiously. There's a lot of risk involved… they're thinking, 'Will our sacrifices go waste this time as well?'"

What happened in 1988?

That year, a courageous lady, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of General Aung San, the hero of Burma’s freedom struggle had returned to her country.

A few months after her arrival in Rangoon, the old military dictator General Ne Win resigned, triggering a pro-democracy student movement. Soon millions of Burmese joined in the demand for a true democracy. This culminated on August 8, 1988 (8-8-88) when thousands of demonstrators were massacred by the Army (some speak of 3,500).

The time of reckoning had come for Suu Kyi. On August 26, 1988, she took the plunge and spoke to the one million people assembled at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon: "I could not, as my father's daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on. This national crisis could, in fact, be called the second struggle for national independence." She thus became the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) opposing the military junta.

The following months saw her crisscrossing Burma and addressing hundreds of meetings. The junta grew more and more nervous and finally on July 20, 1989, arrested her, though she had just cancelled a mammoth rally on the occasion of the Martyr’s Day (which marks Gen Aung San’s assassination). The Army had threatened to shoot at the crowd. From that day she has spent most of her time in jail or in confinement (or ‘protective custody’ as the junta put it).

The violent way with which the junta has been dealing with Suu Kyi and the dissent in general explains today, it is left to the monks to show their disapproval of the generals’ politics. They have nothing to loose.

But why has the agony of the gentle people of Burma continued for so long? One of the reasons is the strong support for the military junta from China and to certain extent from India.

It is not that pressure has not been on Yangon to mend its way! Being a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the other member-states of the Association have been for a long time rather embarrassed by the junta behaviour. Two years back, the Malaysian Parliament had even tried to pressurise the ASEAN to bar Burma from the chairmanship of the group due to its poor human-rights record, its failure to recognise the results of the 1990 elections and the continuation of Suu Kyi’s detention.

At that time, the US and the EU had threatened to boycott the ASEAN meetings if the generals were to chair them. A way out was finally found, with Yangon voluntarily withdrawing, thus saving its face as well as the ASEAN.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had also put his foot down. In his report Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar for the UN Commission on Human Rights he had called upon “China, India and ASEAN member states to encourage Myanmar authorities to accelerate the pace of their political, economic and socio-humanitarian reform”. But to encourage Beijing to care for democracy has no meaning.

Recent reports from Beijing show that Chinese analysts have attributed the present mess in Iraq to the fact that the US forced a Western-style of democracy on the nation. The US Administration has certainly goofed up, but one cannot ascribe its failure to the “democratic process”. It however shows Beijing’s mindset.

For Burma, analysts believe that as long as China (and India) do not take a strong stand in favour of democracy in Burma, nothing will move. The difficulty is the immense competition between the two Asian giants for energy, while Burma has ample reserves of coveted gas, which determine “national interests” in today’s world.

Since 1988, Beijing has provided economic assistance to Yangon on a large scale. China has built essential infrastructure, which in turn serve Beijing’s own strategic interests. Recently the generals have allowed the Chinese to construct a gas pipeline from Arakan in Burma to China’s Yunnan Province, which is crucial to Beijing’s development plans.

In March 2006, President Kalam visited Burma, but he forgot to pronounce the word so cherished by India’s founding fathers, “democracy” or even to ask for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Gas was more important. The main purpose of his visit was to sign a deal allowing India to tap Myanmar’s natural reserves.

A few months earlier, during an ASEAN meeting, the Indian Prime Minister had shyly declared: "We are in favour of national reconciliation and Suu Kyi should be set free. But it is not my purpose to advise them (the generals)."

Recently, resentment has been building up in Burma against the Chinese partly due to “China's veto of a resolution moved by the West in the UN Security Council calling for economic sanctions against the military for its continued violation of the human rights of the Myanmar people.” It is also said that Chinese engineers and other construction workers are taking away the jobs of local people.

Though it is true that the link between the Chinese walking away with cheap Burmese gas and the rise in the price of petroleum products must be in the demonstrators’ minds, the anger of the population is probably deeper.

Will this trigger some rethinking in South Block’s philosophy which puts ‘energy interest’ above all others? Even if the Prime Minister does not want to give any advice to the generals, is it in India’s interest to continue to support them today? If Delhi does not assume a more human role, the crowds’ bitterness is bound to turn towards India.

In December 2005, Dr Singh had said: “All shades of political views should be able to flourish but a solution to domestic problems should be found by the people of Myanmar themselves."

The people of Burma, via their monks, have spoken. Is Delhi ready to support the voices of the peaceful monks and nuns?

As I finished writing this article, the junta has clamped a curfew on the main cities of Burma; the first deaths by shooting have been reported; pagodas are surrounded by special armed forces and the Buddhist nuns and monks will probably not be able to march in the streets anymore.

China's official Xinhua News Agency affirmed that State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan has told the junta leader Gen. Than Shwe that "China, as a friendly neighbour of Myanmar, sincerely hoped Myanmar would restore internal stability as soon as possible, properly handle issues and actively promote national reconciliation."

But like in Darfur, is it plain rhetoric or a sincere shift?

As a Western diplomat in Beijing told Associated Press "China has been working to convey the concerns of the international community to the Burmese government, but it could definitely do more to apply pressure."

The Dalai Lama also addressed the generals: "As a Buddhist monk, I am appealing to the members of the military regime who believe in Buddhism to act in accordance with the sacred dharma in the spirit of compassion and non-violence."

His fellow Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu believed that "The courage of the people of Myanmar is amazing and now they have been joined by their holy men. It is so like the rolling mass action that eventually toppled apartheid."

The generals are difficult nuts to crack, but let us hope! The views expressed in the article are the author's and not of Sify.com
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