Friday, September 28, 2007

The Burmese Revolution

Burma (Myanmar) has been systematically raped and its population terrorized by its military junta*. The military rulers of Burma are not stupid despots. Wait, let me rephrase that- they are despots but not stupid. They are a pretty superstitious bunch for which you would be forgiven to think them stupid. They keep the Burmese borders tightly locked. This has prevented the world from gauging the extent of Burmese suffering other than the few glimpses that are leaked out by some enterprising journalists and escaped dissidents over the years- "out of sight is out of mind" works well when it comes to oppression and misery. Aung San Suu Kyi's presence is also a factor that allows Burma to not fade entirely from the world's sight.

The current uprising by the monks of Burma is not the first uprising against the military rulers. The last such uprising was in 1988. In late 1987 the then general (Ne Win) canceled most denominations of Burmese currency other than the 45 and 90 kyat notes (he believed 9 to be his lucky number and since these denominations were divisible by 9, they were auspicious- go figure!). Overnight, a lot of people carrying currency of all other denomination were now carrying worthless paper and those whose savings were in cash, were almost wiped out.

The economic crisis- which was fast making worse what was a bad situation to begin with- lead to growing unrest and protests, many by students in Rangoon. They called for change and democracy. In March 1988, a student (Phone Maw) was killed in a clash with the military. His death intensified the protests and resulted in monks and ordinary citizens joining the struggle. On the 8th day of the 8th month of the 88th year, hundreds of thousands of Burmese took part in countrywide demonstrations calling for democracy. The mood in Burma at that time has been described as hopeful and euphoric. Monks were turning their bowls upside down and refusing alms from the military. Later that month, Aung San Suu Kyi, who had recently returned to Burma to care for her ailing mother, gave a speech rallying the demonstrators and became the public face of the movement for democracy. General Ne Win, who had resigned from his role as ruler in July, warned the populace that "when the army shoots, it shoots straight". On September 18th of that year the soldiers came out automatic rifles blazing, spraying bullets into masses gathered in protest. Many protesters were trucked away and never seen again. The estimate is that about 3000 people gave their lives in the '88 protests.

The current uprising was brought about by the government (under General Than Shwe) raising the price of petrol and diesel by double and compressed gas by five-fold on the 15th of August, 2007. That is like the U.S. government declaring that gas for private vehicles would cost $6 per gallon instead of $3 and commercial vehicles like buses would have to pay $15 for one unit of whatever fuel they used. The rise in fuel prices hit all sectors of the economy with public transport becoming more expensive (remember this is a country where car ownership isn't quite at western levels) and then rippling into the cost of staples such as rice. On August 19, 400 protesters demonstrated and many were arrested. On September 5, troops used force against peaceful demonstrators in the town of Pakokku. Three monks were hurt. The next day government officials were briefly taken hostage by the monks. They demanded an apology from the government by September 17. It is after that date and the absence of any apology that the monks really started countrywide protests.

Why is this protest any different from the previous one? The last demonstration (8-8-88) started with students and spread to monks. The military got involved and had no qualms in using force to make sure the situation did not get out of hand. Peaceful Buddhist monks are harder to justify attacking with force than students and the lay-public. The current uprising has taken the government somewhat by surprise as it is being lead by monks and instead of staying small and peaceful has swelled in just a few weeks (unlike the last one which took almost a year to reach its height). It may yet get the whole Burmese populace energized and hopefully, be harder to quell. The Buddhist clergy is much revered in Burma. By withholding their blessings from the military and its families, the monks are not only denying themselves precious resources, they are also denying the people associated with the military legitimacy in karma and after-life (a big deal for the Buddhist).
However, moves to suppress the demonstrations began on Monday when the monks called on people to join them for a peaceful protest in Rangoon (prior to this monks had asked the public not to join in because, say some, they knew that it was easier for the military to use force against the public) and Tuesday saw all-day curfews which were defied in many places. Wednesday saw troops using batons and teargas against demonstrating monks. Thursday dawned with news about the overnight raids and arrests at monasteries. As the day progressed the guns have come out and commenced firing and at least nine casualties were reported. At such a time, Burma, its monks and its people need all the support they can get. And where is the rest of the world as this happens to Burma?

The world stands by today much as it stood by in 1988. The Security Council (stumped by China and Russia) continues to make ineffectual gestures and noises. China & Russia, permanent members of the Security Council, believe that this is an internal Burmese affair and thus, has no bearing on international security. China and India are two of the Burmese governments biggest pillars of support. China relies on Burmese natural gas resources. China has been implicated in enough of its own atrocities and supports plenty of despots around the world as long as they provide natural resources to China. Its "non-interference" in internal politics of other nations has resulted in the continuation of the Sudanese genocide. With reference to the current Burmese protests, it has called on "all parties" involved to exercise "restraint". Much as it did, I am sure, in Tienanmen.

India is inconsistent depending on which democratically elected administration sets foreign policy. In fact, the hypocrisy of India's democratically elected government stands (and has often stood) in stark contrast to its intellectuals and even its common citizenry. In a speech a few weeks ago, India's foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee (modeling himself on the speak no evil ape here) said "We have strategic and economic interests to protect in Burma. It is up to the Burmese people to struggle for democracy, it is their issue."

In 1988, however, India openly supported the Burmese pro-democracy movement in the region as well as at the UN. It opened its borders to the in-pouring of Burmese refugees at the time. This started to change as India has gotten more geo-politically aware and realized that it is in a "race" with China in order to develop and be "the power" in the region. In order to extend its own sphere of influence and contain that of China's, India has taken to building "cooperation" as a central tenet of its "Look East Policy".
Starting in the 1990s the Indian government began mollycoddling the Burmese regime. And for what? In the hopes that the military regime will at some point reward them by passing natural gas and oil their way. Another equally reprehensible reason is that India wants the support of the military regime in suppressing insurgencies in Eastern India. The eastern states of India are home to some of the most unique tribal cultures of the world. India has marginalized these states and they remain under-developed. Some of these states have spawned secessionist movements that have lead to insurgencies within Indian borders. The Indian Army has been a constant presence in these states in order to maintain "law and order". Many of these insurgencies are based inside Burma.

Considering that neither the gas nor the support in fighting insurgencies have been forthcoming from Burma, India's support for the regime can only be seen as a geo-political game. Unfortunately for the Indian government, the Burmese protests have brought to light its pathetic support of the oppressive regime. Indians demonstrated this week as their minister for energy was leaving for Burma with signs that read "Deora, don't go for gas, go for democracy" and "India stop supporting Burmese military rule." Even as Indians express solidarity and wish a free society for their brethren to the east, their own government is complicit in the lives lost in Burma. The clamor to see the government do the right thing grows. Now if only the politicians would stop making like the three proverbial monkeys.

Burma needs all the help it can get in order to free itself. And as with Sudan not much, other than words, is forthcoming. The monks are again turning their bowls upside down like in 1988 but in much, much greater numbers. While the mood hasn't yet been described as euphoric, a hopeless people would not fight with the verve the Burmese are showing. They are courting injury, death and worse. Let us not sit on our hands and let this revolution go the way of the one in 1988. This could be the Revolution that frees Burma and the world needs to pay attention and participate positively rather than express helplessness in the face of a few recalcitrant members of the international community. Let us not forget Burma and leave their people to their fate.

[* I don't like using the word junta because it is identical to a Sanskrit/Hindi word. The root Jun (as in jungle) means person. The related word Junta means the public, society or the people. Thus, whenever I hear the word Junta, I don't think of a collusion of a few individuals to oppress others but rather I think of "the people".]
[Photographs courtesy of the BBC.]

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