Yearning for real democracy, the people in many Asian countries are in the midst of epic struggles, braving the brutalities of dictatorships. Democratic movements are gaining momentum in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, but in Myanmar -- formerly called Burma -- which is a multi-ethnic country of some 52 million people, a high-pitched battle for democracy is going on against the corrupt, brutal rule of the military junta, headed by Gen. Than Shwe.
For many decades, Burmese were denied of political freedom and deprived of even the basic needs to lead a dignified life. While wealthy minority elites enjoyed the extravagant lifestyles under the military regime, the majority of Burmese suffered due to crushing poverty. The situation got worse when the junta generals recently hiked the fuel prices by 500%. That was a spur. Burmese expressed their anger ferociously on the streets of Yangon (the former capital, previously known as Rangoon). Massive rallies were held continuously. Tens of thousands of monks and hundreds of thousands of the country’s poor were joining the pro-democracy movement. The participation of Buddhist monks in the demonstrations was an unexpected turn and it made the democratic movement much stronger. It also exposed the myth of religious sanctity of the junta rule.
Responding to the protest, the junta unleashed the reign of terror. The exact number of people detained so far was not known to outside world due to the junta’s imposition of severe censorship and the denial of Internet access. The pro-democracy groups claimed that the number of detainees may be about 6,000, which includes students, monks, journalists and opposition leaders. Official estimates claimed that the death toll due to the crackdown of the government on the protesters was just 10. But opposition groups estimated that more than 200 died and they also charged that the junta indulged in “torture” of detained Buddhist monks and activists. For a long time, Burma’s army had been waging a brutal war against innocent civilians from various ethnic groups. Recently, shooting a film in Burma, actor Sylvester Stallone told of witnessing “survivors with legs cut off and all kinds of land-mine injuries, maggot-infested wounds and ears cut off. ” He summarized that it was “a hellhole beyond your wildest dreams.”
The recent revolts are comparable to the 1988 uprising. Massive agitation of students in Rangoon triggered the nationwide demonstration. That movement was suppressed brutally by the army, which killed more than 3,000 people. In general elections in 1990, the first since 1960, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won convincingly, taking 392 of the 492 seats. The military junta showed its disrespect for democracy by annulling the election outcome. Since then, Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest for 17 years. The only “crime” she committed was that she got the people’s mandate to rule the country. Gen. Than Shwe, as the head of the junta since 1992, was running a government notorious for its history of human rights violations. But the business lobby of large multinationals had flourished under the junta, profiteering from the lucrative contracts in this natural gas-rich country. Among the most prominent multinationals are France-based Total S.A. and US-based Chevron, which operate a natural gas pipeline from Burma to Thailand.
The UN sent its envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, to Burma to meet Gen. Than Shwe. Although the envoy met him after waiting for some days, he couldn’t make any substantial change in the attitude of the ruthless military leadership. The military rulers have no regard for the concerns of the international community and they continued the crackdown on the democracy activists. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had asked Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari to visit Myanmar again in November after holding talks with regional neighbors such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, China and Japan.
Can the Bush administration, being boastful of “successful” democracy experiment in Iraq, show the same determination against the brutal regime in Burma? Bush’s declaration that Americans “stand in solidarity with these brave individuals” was mostly hogwash. He, along with the British Prime Minister and the European Union, called for international sanctions -- the suggestion which would never help to achieve democracy for Burmese. It was once again proved that the empire would act decisively only for promoting its militaristic and economic interests, but not for democracy-promotion. Currently the US is condemning the junta, with the aim of furthering its corporate interests over the country’s cheap labor and its oil and natural gas resources. The US is also worried about the rival China’s influence over Burma and also Russia’s growing business dealings with the country. So all big powers are more concerned about their own selfish economic and other hegemonic interests, rather than the democratic aspirations of the Burmese poor.
An end to junta rule is the viable remedy for all troubles in Burma. Firstly, the international pressure must be mounted on the military rulers to initiate democratic reforms, beginning with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi along with all other political prisoners.
N. Gunasekaran is a political activist and writer based in Chennai, India.
From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2007
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