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What next in Burma?

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Robin Lustig | 14:57 UK time, Friday, 17 July 2009

Remember Burma? Remember those protests nearly two years ago by thousands of saffron-robed Buddhst monks, protesting against a dictatorial military government?

Let me jog your memory, because I think Burma may soon be back in the news again, and I'd hate to think you weren't ready for it. (As you may recall, I see it as part of my task in these notes to act as a sort of early warning system. Consider this your Burmese early warning.)

First, within the next few weeks, the opposition leader and Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi will learn whether her lengthy period of detention is to be extended yet again. (She has already spent 14 of the past 20 years either under house arrest or in prison, since before her party, the National League for Democracy, won an overwhelming victory in the country's last elections in 1990.)

The latest charge against her is that last May she broke the rules of her current detention order by allowing into her house an uninvited American guest, who had taken it upon himself to swim across a lake to her home.

The expectation is that she will be found guilty as charged (the judicial process is not exactly as independent as might be thought desirable). And if she is convicted, there is a chance of more street protests, because the woman referred to by the Burmese simply as "the Lady" remains a potent political force.

More importantly, if she is sent to prison, she will be unable by law to play any part in the elections scheduled for early next year, the first national elections since the ones her party won back in 1990. (Her supporters think this is the real reason she has been put on trial.)

But why should you care about Burma? Well, my answer is the same as it always is in these circumstances: look at a map. On one side China; on the other India. The world's two most rapidly growing economies, two regional super-powers. They care what happens in Burma, and so should we.

China's leaders are particularly concerned. What matters above all to them is stability at home and stability on their borders. They don't want any sudden upheavals in Burma, any more than they do in North Korea. That's why I shall be watching carefully to see what Beijing says and does in the run-up to the Burmese elections next year.

Not, of course, that the elections will be anything like free or fair. But if you heard the programme last night, you'll have heard the former United Nations humanitarian affairs official Richard Horsey, who spent five years in Burma, suggest that the new generation of political leaders who are expected to emerge after the elections may be just a little bit more open to dialogue with the outside world than the current bunch of geriatric generals.

In an article in the current edition of The World Today, published by the foreign policy think tank Chatham House, he wrote that the West "must position itself now to seize the opportunities next year may bring to push the country in the more positive direction we all want to see."

Click below to hear him discuss Aung San Suu Kyi's continuing political relevance.

It could be that nothing will change after the elections. But it could also be that with a US president who believes in engaging even with rogue regimes, there will be a genuine opportunity for a new approach. And despite the undoubted bravery of those Buddhist monks, who risked being shot by the security forces, it could be that some subtle signals now from the outside world will stand more of a chance of effecting a shift in Burma itself.


  • 1. At 4:17pm on 17 Jul 2009, lordBeddGelert wrote:

    Surely 'Myanmar' ? Mucho confusing when Bombay has gone from 'B' To 'M' for Mumbai, and this country is going in the reverse direction.

    Here's a quiz question - what does the 'B' in BSE stand for ?

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  • 2. At 4:48pm on 17 Jul 2009, TrueToo wrote:

    Prior to his famous 'animal Farm' and '1984', George Orwell wrote 'Burmese Days' a surprisingly good early novel - his other early works, like 'Down and Out in London and Paris and 'The Clergyman's Daughter' were confused and amateurish combinations of novel, autobiography and social commentary and quite unreadable in places.

    The novel centres around intrigue in a colonial Burma of eighty-odd years ago. It's an interesting read for those concerned about what happens in current Burma or Myanmar or whatever. I'm not.

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  • 3. At 5:43pm on 17 Jul 2009, ghostofsichuan wrote:

    After the protest, that were ended by brutal force of the army, came the cyclone. With thousands injuried, killed and without food the government of Burma collected all the aid sent by other countries to keep for itslef and refused to let aid workers into the worst hit areas. Britan and the US had Navy carriers off the coast of Burma with supplies but turned away and left the Burmese people to be abandoned by the Burmese Army and suffer untold number of needless deaths. The Burmese Army runs the country, it is not a government, it is a military force that has no problem killing any opposition. China and India only care that Burma isn't controlled by the other, they do not care what takes place inside that country, no one seems to. The enthic groups within Burma would all like to see the current regime removed as they have it worse than the Burmese. If there is a case for international intervention in Asia, this is it. Burma has some gems and maybe potential engery deposits, but nothing that anyone is willing to fight over. The Burmese people have been abandoned by the West because it would require moral courage to intervene, something the West gave up many years ago.

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  • 4. At 12:41pm on 19 Jul 2009, expertsceptic wrote:

    Robin, thank you for alerting your readers to the situation in Burma. In a couple of comments I made the last time Burma made the headlines ("R2P-RIP?"), I expressed my scepticism about the official Western response to the "outrageous" response of the Burmese generals to the offers of aid to victims of cyclone Nargis. In my last comment, which was posted several weeks after the outburst of emotion from Westerners horrified at the neglect of suffering in Burma by the generals who refused to allow massive aid into the country, in which I showed that there was in fact an attempt to bring relief to the Burmese villagers as reported by aid workers who had a chance to do an adequate survey of the stricken region several weeks later. Don't get me wrong please. I am not an apologist for the autocratic military rulers of Burma. As a Buddhist and a supporter of democracy, I have been long concerned about the suppression of free elections and human rights in that country. What I am concerned about is the crusader zeal for "freedom" and "democracy" of the sort that has laid waste to Iraq. It was recently reported for example by reporter Michael Ware on CNN, that because of the ethnic and sectarian strife in wartorn Iraq since the overthrow of the authoritarian rule of Saddam Hussein, the substantial Christian population of Iraq has been reduced from a few million to under a million. It is also well known that the formerly large population of professional classes in Iraq (doctors, lawyers, academics, etc) has been considerably reduced because of the civil strife. In other words, it is important for the West to take into consideration, the effect that pressure on these countries can lead to devastating civil strife especially if military invasion seems to be the only feasible alternative available to the crusading Western ideologues. Before we take these drastic steps, let us step back and recall the mistakes of the past.

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  • 5. At 04:05am on 08 Aug 2009, expertsceptic wrote:

    In my last comment on this topic I referred to the "crusader zeal for freedom and democracy" and the "crusading Western ideologues." Now before you cast these expressions off as mere cliches and false analogies from the ancient histories of Western-Middle East warfare, you need to know about a report that I just saw (Aug 7, 2009) on the show Countdown with host Keith Olberman on the MSNBC cable channel. Olberman reported on the private security firm Blackwater Associates headed by CEO Eric Prince, which happens to be the largest security firm providing services for the US government in Iraq. Olberman describes how Mr Prince saw himself and his firm whose mission was not just to provide security for US government personnel, as descendents of the authentic Crusaders whose mission was to convert or eliminate all Muslims from the face of the earth. One result of this medieval world view of Mr Prince was the complete lack of regard that was shown for the lives of the Iraqi civilians by gunmen hired by Blackwater. Entire families of Iraqis were gunned down after the slightest provocation or even suspicion about their intentions. A number of former employees have come forward and acknowledged that this was the case when they were working for Mr Prince. I don't know about how you will react to these revelations but I personally feel this is outrageous behavior. It is unbelievable that Mr Prince and his firm Blackwater could have been vetted by the US government whether it was the Pentagon or the State Department for this job without knowing something about Prince's personal background.

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