Burmese freedom movement becoming harder to suppress
Published: Thursday, October 4th, 2007
Senior Burmese general Than Shwe did deign to meet Tuesday with United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari after giving him the cold shoulder for days, but he met from a position of relative strength. No public comments were made. The democracy movement in Burma seems to have been defeated, at least for now. The isolated and eccentric military regime watched as popular protests against its iron-fisted rule grew and then showed which side had the guns and the ruthlessness. (Burma is the name recognized by the U.S. and predates the junta’s change to Myanmar in 1989. Besides, it’s the name preferred by protesters of the military regime and that’s good enough for us.) At least 4,000 Buddhist monks, who had been leading ever-enlarging peaceful protests, for more than two weeks, have been rounded up, disrobed and shackled, and are scheduled to be shipped out of Rangoon. The authorities say 10 people were killed during the government crackdown, but diplomats and other observers say the number is significantly higher. One former regime official says the bodies of hundreds of Buddhist monks have been dumped into remote jungles, and the death toll could be in the thousands. That would place it on a similar level to the 1988 demonstrations that were broken up at the cost of some 3,000 lives. Perhaps the only significant difference is the regime seems to want to hide the extent of the bloodshed it inflicted rather than leaving bodies on the streets as an object lesson to anybody else who might think about speaking out in opposition. Virtually the entire civilized world is outraged by the brutality of the Burmese military regime, but there was little the outside world could do. The generals have isolated Burma from most of the outside world except China, so economic sanctions leveled by any country are like a pinprick at best. For all the brave and generally sincere talk about supporting freedom and democracy and lamenting the regime’s brutality, no Western country was going to send troops to Burma. With virtually no economic stake and a place in the world that is not geopolitically strategic, Burma is on the periphery of most other countries’ perceived core interests. Even if the U.S. or some European country had available troops to support the democracy movement, it might well not have been prudent to use them in Burma just now. The only real hope for the demonstrators was the “whole world is watching” syndrome — the moral weight of world opinion. CNN and other international media did try to keep the brutal suppression in Burma in the forefront of international coverage — and the regime, by limiting in-country journalism and shutting the Internet and other forms of communication showed that it recognized the potential danger. But as nearly as we can tell, the only ideology that motivates the Burmese junta is the simple imperative of hanging onto power, and that was stronger than any fear of what the rest of the world might think of its brutality. Does that mean any hope for freedom in Burma is lost? Perhaps not. Hope can never be squelched forever, and there are signs of disunity in the Burmese (or Myanmar) government. The Asia Times reports that Gen. Maung Aye, second in command in the junta, opposed using force against the Buddhist monks. Some soldiers, according to reports from diplomats and aid officials, disobeyed orders to shoot into crowds. The junta may be divided about what to do in the aftermath of the political crisis. There could be a rebellion within the military. China, the Burmese regime’s only real ally and trading partner, is obviously not shocked at authoritarian tactics considering its own government’s record. But it does see the Beijing Olympics next year as a coming-out party of sorts, the entrance of China into the company of respectable nations as a Great Power. Despite a poor record the last couple of weeks, it could eventually exercise a moderating influence on the Burmese regime. It may be a blessing that no outside country is prepared or able to oust the military and support Burma’s democracy movement with military force. Now the future of democracy is up to the Burmese, who have been given an example of bravery and willingness to suffer for a cause by Buddhist monks and thousands of others. Whether they can build on the obvious discontent enough to create the impetus for real reform is an open question. But we would be surprised if it took another 19 years for Burma’s freedom movement to express itself publicly again.
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