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Futile bloodshed in Myanmar

By T P Sreenivasan
October 02, 2007 13:49 IST
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The western media made it appear last week as though the people of Myanmar, particularly the monks, had finally risen against the military regime there and that, with international pressure, democracy would be restored and the popular leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, would be released. History is replete with inspiring stories of popular uprisings bringing down the most adamant of dictators.

But Myanmar's history of the last 47 years or more makes it extremely unlikely that change will come to that hapless country through a popular uprising. The military is so well entrenched in Myanmar and the people are so patient that the change has to come through a process of reconciliation between them. Militarisation of the country and the absence of a civil society insulate the country against igniting ideas. The international community can, at best, provide the incentives and disincentives for change.

I arrived in Yangon soon after watching CNN scenes of protesters being manhandled by the paid thugs of the regime, but during the five days I spent there in the beginning of September 2007, there was no sign of unrest or even presence of the army on the streets. The army leadership, of course, had moved to Naypyidaw, the new capital built in the middle of nowhere, far away from the sea, with eight lane roads, palatial mansions and manicured golf courses. The fuel prices were raised, it was rumoured, to pay for the extravagant construction of the new capital. Yangon was as messy and disorderly as I left it 22 years ago and there were signs of hectic business activity everywhere. Vintage cars, most of them right-hand drive, held together with wires, were plying the streets on the right side of the road.

Yangon has indeed changed since my days there. The airport is swanky; the skyline has changed, with the arrival of skyscrapers and mansions. Old buildings have been painted and the pagodas glitter in gold. Modern hotels are everywhere. But it is obvious that though much has changed, the old ways of repression continue. A note in the hotel room states that, unfortunately, there is no Internet access in the room, but "limited" access is available at the business centre. Most email services, such as hotmail and yahoo, are not available, but gmail is good and fast.

Myanmar has been halted in the middle of progress as a liberal economy because of the US sanctions as well as the discovery by the investors that their profits had to be shared with the authorities. Credit cards are taboo, but the US dollar is omnipresent. The official exchange rate is Kyats 6 to a dollar, but the market rate is Kyats 1350 to a dollar and at that rate, prices are reasonable. After Ne Win's "Burmese Road to Socialism", which meant political and economic isolation, the new rulers had opened up the economy, but discovered that a liberal economy cannot operate in a repressive political system. The growth has slowed down and foreign investors are biding for time.

After the massacre of the protestors in 1988, free and fair elections were held and, to the surprise of the junta, even soldiers voted for the democratic party under Aung San Suu Kyi, but the army imprisoned the leaders and started a political process that would entrench the army in power forever. It has just announced the principles of a new constitution that would give a predominant role in the country to the army. Aung San remains under house arrest, but she is free to leave the country if she is willing not to return. The 1988-generation, as the democratic movement is called, is determined and active, but remains underground except when they gather enough courage to demonstrate. Since any political demonstration will land them in prison for 20 years, they look for other issues such as the fuel price rise to agitate.

A Gandhi or Mandela miracle is what Aung San and her supporters hope for. But the army has been in power since the early sixties when Ne Win was invited by a democratic government to end insurgency. The army has been part of daily life in Myanmar for a whole generation and the patient people of Myanmar are waiting for peaceful change. The army accuses Aung San of stubbornness, but the army is as stubborn in its pursuit of power.

Support to the regime comes from China, which has penetrated Myanmar through economic assistance, trade and military co-operation. It claims not to interfere in the internal affairs of Myanmar. Russia is a strong supporter and has agreed to give Myanmar nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. The cold war seems to be alive and well in Myanmar as Russia opposes the western policy towards Myanmar. India, after supporting the democratic movement in the beginning, has begun to engage the regime for mutually beneficial ties. India's quest for security on the borders and for energy drives its Myanmar policy. Myanmar is a part of India's "Look East" policy. ASEAN countries blow hot and cold, but works with the Myanmar regime for all practical purposes. 

The US is clearly on a regime change mode in Myanmar, which they continue to call Burma in defiance of the name change. But in actual fact, Burma was just a corruption of 'Myama', the name the country always had. The US leads the western campaign against the regime and vigorously supports the release of Aung San Suu Kyi followed by free and fair elections, if not respect the earlier verdict of the people. US spokesmen admit that they can be principled in the case of Myanmar as no vital American interests are involved there. But they also admit that their support would not go beyond diplomatic measures. The proverbial use of "all necessary measures", a euphemism for military threat, is not part of the American strategy for Myanmar.

The US signaled a measure of accommodation by agreeing to begin a dialogue with the regime recently. But the first round of meeting at Deputy Assistant Secretary of State level made no progress, though the junta sent two ministers to talk to the Americans. The most recent sanctions announced by President Bush will make another meeting impossible in the near future.

The British, who still extend humanitarian assistance to Myanmar, concede that they have reached the end of the road as far as the current policy is concerned. But they and the rest of the European Union have no new formula to pursue. The latest wave of protests should encourage them to be more innovative and find ways to reach a middle ground with the regime.

The conscience of humanity is reflected in the UN position and the UN Special Envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, is the only outsider, who has access to the military as well as Aung San. But he has no mandate except to press for the release of political prisoners and to call for reconciliation and restoration of democracy. Photo opportunities offered to Gambari to pose with Aung San Suu Kyi and Senior General Than Shwe are not empty gestures, but they are of limited value. The very fact that Chinese intervention became necessary for Gambari to go there in the wake of the protests tells its own tale.

The impasse in Myanmar is quite palpable, but in the absence of a civil society, the pressure of public opinion does not gain momentum. The world is critical of China, and to some extent, India for supporting the regime and calls upon both countries to bring pressure on the regime. But the regime is not amenable to advice even from friends except to affirm their resolve to pursue the path of reconciliation at their own pace.

In an unusual incident, the US ambassador in Bangkok openly criticised External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee for India's Myanmar policy recently. But India has many American examples to show that national interests often take precedence over ideology. India does not have to prove its democratic credentials. It has to work quietly behind the scenes to bring about change in Myanmar. No purpose will be served by discarding its gains of recent years in enhancing India's security by open condemnation.

Stray incidents of protest only result in futile bloodshed as long as they do not snowball into a mass movement. Long years of military rule have numbed the population into a sense of resignation. Aung San  Suu Kyi is the only credible leader Myanmar has to take over the reigns of power when the time comes. Even the army seems to be counting on her to call the country to order in the event of chaos. But if the world has no alternative strategy to offer, Myanmar will fall back again into silent suffering.

T P Sreenivasan is a former Ambassador to the United Nations, Vienna and former Governor for India to the IAEA, Vienna

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