Burma at the Breaking Point

The images of monks marching in the lashing rain against the vicious military junta in Myanmar, joined by crowds of civilian sympathizers, brings back memories of Philippine-style people power and has once again given rise to the hope that this time Burmese democracy may have a chance. A firm and united international response by the ASEAN nations and the countries with the greatest influence on Myanmar’s shadowy generals — China, Russia and India, which provide weapons to the army— plus strident condemnation from the U.S. , U.K. and other western democracies gives the impression that positive and peaceful change may be on the way.

Protests began last month over increases in fuel prices which quickly gave way to popular and spontaneous expressions of frustration and anger over the 19-year military reign of terror. When the country’s highly revered Buddhist monks joined in, the junta was seriously threatened. The protesters even managed to march by the restricted area where Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, was under house arrest. She made a brief public appearance and was quickly hustled away.

The military ring reacted in the usual manner, by dispatching troops to stifle protest actions and imposing a curfew. There have been reports that soldiers fired live rounds into the crowds and at least one monk has been killed. Aung San Suu Kyi was reported to have been moved to prison from house arrest.

This bodes ill for the fragmented pro-democracy forces. The Myanmar generals are ruthless and will not hesitate to spill blood. From all indications, the army rank-and-file and middle level officers have not been swayed by the public mood for change. Lacking an organized armed component, the monks and the people are sitting ducks for the regime’s institutional killers.

The ASEAN must now come up with a specific plan to support the Burmese freedom fighters, aside from the standard ineffective denunciations. With the help of the international community, the financial screws can be tightened against the Yangon regime by going after their bank accounts in Singapore and elsewhere. The U.S. and European Union should immediately impose immediate and tougher trade sanctions.

Pressure must be placed on China, Myanmar’s chief trading partner and main supplier of arms, to turn off the tap and persuade the generals to stand down. This would also be a good opportunity for China to redeem itself after recent trade debacles and scandals which has tarnished its image in the lead up to the 2008 Olympics.

As a last resort, exclusion from ASEAN should be considered.

The junta must be made to realize, from within and without, that its days are numbered and the rising tide of democracy cannot be withstood. Otherwise, many more lives would be lost and the black curtain over Myanmar will remain for a while longer.


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