The popular uprising in Myanmar, in which the revered community of Buddhist monks played a leading role, has been brutally crushed by the ruling military junta, led by the 74-year old Senior Gen. Than Shwe. Reports say several thousand people have been taken into detention since troops and armed police cracked down on the protests for the past two weeks. A number have died in detention, amid charges of routine ill-treatment and torture. Those who die are immediately cremated, like activist leader Win Shwe, with nary an explanation to grieving friends and relatives.
Global condemnation, while widespread, has failed to sway the increasingly isolated Burmese military. One reason is that there is little unanimity in the international response to the crisis.
The White House’s official stance is that “[T]he United States strongly condemns the atrocities committed by the junta”. The U.N. Security Council has yet to agree to a statement condemning the military crackdown and calling for prisoners to be released, mainly because of opposition from China, Myanmar’s major trading partner and patron. Russia argues that the violence in Burma is an internal issue that does not threaten regional peace.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is part, had a particularly pallid reaction, saying that it is reviewing a new charter that obliges member countries to “strengthen democracy.”
What are the immediate lessons to be learned and what lies in store for the Burmese pro-democracy movement ?
The most obvious message is that street protests and demonstrations, no matter how popular, do not automatically lead to a change in government. Filipinos in particular are enamored of people power and what it can achieve. We tend to romanticize what is, in most instances, a long and difficult fight. This, I fear, is what is in store for Burma.
Journalist Paul Reynolds, writing for the BBC, points out the factors necessary to topple an authoritarian regime:
1. Widespread public protests, bringing in many different social and economic groups;
2. An opposition leadership with clear ideas around which people can rally;
3. The ability to use the media in some form to get a message across;
4. A mechanism for undermining the existing regime – whether by internal coup in the case of a military junta, the emergence of reformers, or the simple exhaustion of an existing government leading to its collapse;
5. External pressure from key countries able to exert influence.
A combination of the foregoing is usually necessary for success. Myanmar lacks the key 4th and 5th elements, that of a decisive third force to wear down or tear up the regime and external pressure from the country with the most influence on Burmese affairs, China.
None of the elements of the Burmese armed forces have so rebelled or thrown its lot behind the people, as had happened in the Philippines. There appears to be no imminent threat to the military government from within its ranks, from either reformers or coup plotters.
China has transformed Myanmar into a virtual client state in recent years, constructing roads and other major infrastructure, availing of its forests and vast natural resources and even dreaming of a long-coveted access to the Indian Ocean. It is loathe to undermine a government in which it has invested so much and politically and economically. Hence, its veto of stronger sanctions pushed by other members of the U.N. Security Council and its anemic statements about supporting the “stability, reconciliation, democracy and development of Myanmar.”
Thus, the prognosis for a protracted struggle ahead for Burmese pro-democracy forces.