September 27, 2007


Economics at the root of Myanmar protests (Asia Times, 9/28/07)

The first sign of the protests now escalating in Myanmar occurred in a rare display of public outrage over economic conditions in February. A small group calling itself the Myanmar Development Committee called on the military rulers to address consumer prices, health care, education, and the poor electricity infrastructure.

Normally unseen in Myanmar, the protest was broken up in 30 minutes. Likely in response to the protests, the ruling military junta appointed Brigadier-General Than Han of the Myanmar

police to handle civil unrest in Yangon.

On August 15, the government made significant cuts to national fuel subsidies, which had an immediate effect of increasing the price of diesel fuel by a reported 100%, causing a fivefold increase in the price of compressed natural gas, and placing additional inflationary pressure on an economy already facing estimated inflation levels of 17.7% in 2005 and 21.4% in 2006.

Similarly to the event in February, people took to the streets in a rare display of public anger.

Rotten regimes end up being destroyed by a virtuous cycle: you can't have a competitive economy in the global marketplace without making market-oriented reforms and if you aren't successful your people eventually get rebellious; once you get your economy right and start making your citizens affluent they start demanding a say in how they're governed; once you've got a market economy and a political democracy you become just another success story for those living under rotten regimes to compare themselves to unfavorably--as, for instance, the PRC to Taiwan, North Korea to South and France to England.

The saffron revolution: If the world acts in concert, the violence should be the last spasm of a vicious regime in its death throes (the Economist, 9/27/07)

here are two reasons why China might now see its own interests as best served by assisting a peaceful transition in Myanmar. The first is that China wants stability on its borders, and it is becoming obvious that the junta cannot provide it. The generals' economic mismanagement has helped reduce a country blessed with rich resources to crippling poverty. Fleeing economic misery as much as political oppression, up to 2m migrants from Myanmar are in Thailand. And it was an economic grievance—a big, abrupt rise in fuel prices—that sparked the present unrest. [...]

China must also be wondering nervously how all this will affect next year's Olympic games in Beijing. Already, protests about China's support for the government of Sudan, larded with comparisons to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, have shown that its foreign policy as well as its human-rights record at home is under scrutiny. Myanmar is justifiably a popular cause in the West. If China proves actively obstructive to international efforts to bring the junta to book, it may provoke calls for a boycott of the games.

On the brink: How Myanmar's people rose up against its regime—and the regime rose up against its people (the Economist, 9/27/07)
If there are any cracks in the junta's unity, nobody outside knows about them. General Than Shwe, the 74-year-old paramount leader, is rumoured to be gravely ill but it is assumed that, when he goes, his replacement will be just as thuggish. Taking account both of the expanded army and of the sizeable ethnic militias, Myanmar is one of the world's most militarised countries, notes Martin Smith, a writer on the place. The junta's leaders, pointing to the country's chaotic period of parliamentary democracy between independence in 1948 and the military takeover in 1962, sincerely believe the army is the only institution capable of holding Myanmar together. They are determined to cling to power whatever the cost.

It is just possible, however, that the regime may match violence with concessions. Earlier this month, it wrapped up, after 14 years, a national convention to draft the guidelines for a new and supposedly democratic constitution. In fact, the new charter would leave the army in charge and political rights severely curtailed. But its precise wording has not yet been decided and the next steps towards implementing it are uncertain. This leaves scope for promises of progress, in the hope that this will weaken the protests.

A bloody dawn?

Few demonstrators would trust such promises. But, combined with a stranglehold on the monasteries, and other repressive measures aimed at whittling down the numbers of protesters, they might be enough to show, once again, that resistance is futile. Back in 1988, at the peak of the protests, even as soldiers were mowing down the crowds, many Burmese felt sure the rotten regime was ready to collapse under the unstoppable force of “people power”, as the Marcos regime in the Philippines had two years earlier.

Even if the regime does crumble and the junta stuffs its bags with gemstones and heads for exile, Myanmar's troubles would still be daunting. Many of the ethnic minorities continue to distrust the majority “Burmans”, even including the democrats. And the NLD has been gutted by years of oppression. Miss Suu Kyi, inspiring figure though she is, is an untested leader who has perforce been woefully out of touch with events.

As in 1988 and 1990 the Burmese people have shown they want to choose their own leaders. In the past they did not fully reckon on the ruthlessness of the people they were up against. One day, as with all tyrannies, Myanmar's will fall. But much blood may flow before that day dawns.

Burma's Dictators and the Fear of Purgatory (Jürgen Kremb, 9/27/07, Der Spiegel)
Since 1962, Burma has been ruled by brutal generals who have sought the salvation of the country in "the Burmese path to Socialism." Yet in no other country in East and Southeast Asia is spiritual and superstitious belief so much a part of everyday life. After the closed-off Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, Burma is probably the most Buddhist country in the world.

At least once in his life, each man must spend weeks if not months in a monastery. Burma expert Bertil Lintner believes that out of the 53 million population, more than 400,000 men are currently saffron-clad monks, equalling the number of soldiers. Other estimates put the number of monks at as high as 800,000.

But faith is not just a thing for the ordinary people. The otherwise unscrupulous military regime seeks the blessings of the gods, Buddha and the 36 "Nats," as Burma's own spirits are called.

Burma's hour of need (Sholto Byrnes, 27 September 2007, New Statesman)
President Bush has announced new sanctions. Gordon Brown has written to the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, calling for "concerted international action" to discourage the regime from perpetrating violence on its citizens, and has urged the Security Council to meet immediately. These fine words may not be enough. The global community has offered an abundance of sympathy for Burma over the years - and precious little in the way of real help. As Desmond Tutu wrote in our special issue: "Protracted hand-wringing, the counter economic interests of some countries, and an absence of courage and vision over the years, have meant that there has been no coherent international government strategy on how to tackle Burma's intransigent rulers."

Some believe the regime must be isolated, starved of trade until it collapses. Others think the international community must swallow its repugnance for the generals and encourage reform through engagement with the outside world. The key is China, not only the regional superpower but also one of Burma's biggest trading partners and a major supporter of the junta. Only in January, China used its UN Security Council veto to block criticism of the regime. China's interest in democracy is minimal. What is definitely in its interests, however, is a stable Burma. The military has kept a lid on Burma's internal ethnic tensions through brutal suppression. If China suspects that, in the long term, the courage and defiance of the freedom movement must overwhelm a government that can only maintain its position through violence - displays of which Beijing most certainly wishes to avoid in the run-up to its Olympics - it could play an invaluable role in the future of a country that has suffered so grievously for so long.

Burmese Blood on China's Hands (Der Spiegel, 9/27/07)
The situation in Burma seems to be getting more serious by the day. Violence on Thursday continued to escalate with government security forces firing on protesters in Yangon. There are reports that a number of people have been killed, including a Japanese journalist.

Meanwhile, the international community is continuing to call for restraint with China on Thursday finally breaking its silence and urging all parties to exercise self-control. China is Burma's closest large ally and has close economic relations with the military dictatorship.

But for many observers, China's comments have come too late. Both the US and the European Union are boosting sanctions against the Burmese military junta, but China is unlikely to support similar measures at the United Nations.

German commentators are concerned about the developments in Burma and agree that China is the only international actor that can put a stop to the violence.

Destructive engagement: The outside world shares responsibility for the unfolding tragedy in Myanmar (The Economist, 9/27/07)
[I]solation has never really been on the cards. Any gap is eagerly filled by Myanmar's neighbours—not just China, but also India and Thailand and other members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Even in the Western camp there have been differences in approach between the three most important members, America, the EU and Japan.

American leaders have insisted the junta honour the 1990 election result and step aside. To this end, they have imposed wide-ranging sanctions. The most important of these block foreign aid and lending to Myanmar by the World Bank, IMF and Asian Development Bank. Official aid flows to Myanmar are among the lowest of any poor country in the world—around $2.50 a head each year, compared with, for example, $63 in next-door Laos.

The EU has been more equivocal, demanding greater respect for human rights and a transition to civilian democracy, but appearing to accept fresh elections as the way to get there. Its sanctions have been correspondingly milder. Japan has been softer still. Burma's biggest aid donor until 1988, it has continued to provide small-scale help, apparently hoping to retain a smidgen of influence.

These days, however, if any countries can sway the junta they are the regional ones: ASEAN, especially Thailand; India; and above all China. When ASEAN controversially admitted Myanmar in 1997, on the organisation's 30th anniversary, it said membership would be an engine for positive change through “constructive engagement”. ASEAN's culturally sympathetic but fast-growing founder members would show Myanmar the way. This was guff.

Viewed most cynically, Myanmar's accession was part of a bid by ASEAN members to secure access to the country's rich resources: timber, oil, gas and minerals. Using more sophisticated (but no less cynical) geopolitical arguments, ASEAN diplomats justified admitting the unsavoury bunch as a way to prevent Myanmar becoming an arena in which China and India would vie for influence.

But this is happening anyway. China had a head start, and is maintaining its lead comfortably. Itself responsible for quelling an uprising with a massacre in 1989, China's government had few qualms about expanding ties with Myanmar during the 1990s. It supplied weaponry, including multiple-rocket launchers, fighter aircraft and guided-missile attack craft.

Western and Indian analysts worry that China sees Myanmar as part of its so-called “string of pearls” policy of building naval and intelligence bases around the Indian Ocean. There were reports that China was delivering signals equipment for monitoring stations on various coastal sites, and had a permanent presence on Great Coco Island (see map). Such talk has fuelled Indian paranoia, though Western analysts dismiss it.

The role of the sons of Lord Buddha: Academic Maung Zarni explains the role of the Buddhist monks in the Burma uprising and explains how for years foreign countries have helped propped up the brutal military regime (New Statesman, 9/27/07)
In Burmese politics since independence from Britain in 1948 soldiers, monks and student activists have been the three most important elite categories. Over the past 45 years monks and student activists have continued to enjoy respect and influence in Burmese society because they are seen as a collective conscience of society. The soldiers have become the object of popular, if concealed hatred, disgust and fear, owing to the latter’s deeply paternalistic, incompetent and corrupt rule.

The world must act for Burma: Zoya Phan, who spent 10 years in a Thai refugee camp after the Burmese military attacked her village, explains the emergence of the democracy movement and calls on the world to act (Zoya Phan, 27 September 2007, New Statesman)
The regime, increasingly out of touch in its new capital, Nay-Pyi-Daw, miscalculated the mood of the people. They also failed to realise the extent to which democracy activists have developed networks to circumvent controls on the flow of information, and were able to get news out to the international community.

Nor did they anticipate the level of organisation that the monks alliance had built, how they had learnt from previous uprisings. The leadership has remained largely anonymous and under cover, stopping the regime from ‘beheading’ the movement by imprisoning the organisers.

This, combined with an international community that finally seems willing to take on the regime with UN action and targeted sanctions, gives Burmese exiles like myself hope that our suffering may soon be over. But much still depends on how the international community responds. They must translate words into action, providing maximum support to those risking their lives on the streets of Burma.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 27, 2007 11:13 AM
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