Friday, October 05, 2007

More notes on Burma

video
The plight of those under the boot of the Burmese junta remains serious, but so do the hopes of a better future. While the streets of Rangoon are largely quiet during the day, at night the roundups of dissenters continues.
"I have heard that 6,000 people may be missing - that sounds plausible," said one Western diplomat, on condition of anonymity. ...

"It's frightening to even think about the fate of those monks," said Shari Villarosa, the senior US diplomat in Rangoon.

She said conditions in Burmese prisons were "very grim, with reports of torture".
Before anyone says it, I am fully aware, as apparently she is not, of the irony of the US condemning another nation over torture and that we have little moral standing from which to pass judgment. But there is an old saying which is applicable here: "If it's the truth, what does it matter who said it?"

The point, however, is this:
Although the Burmese military has forced the protesters off Rangoon's streets, this does not appear to have broken the resolve of democracy campaigners.

Nilar Thein has been in hiding since the very first street protests, triggered by abrupt fuel price rises, were broken up by police and hired government thugs last month.

Although her husband and many other leading activists from the "88 Generation" (named after the last student uprising of 1988) are now in prison, Nilar Thein is still on the run with a handful of other activists.

Reached by telephone, she broke away from a planning meeting to declare: "There will be more sacrifices ahead. We must find a way to win this battle by joining hands with the monks and the public."
Nilar said she "can't predict" how long it will take to secure a democratic Burma - but neither she nor others have given up.

Meanwhile, there are some other signs that even as the crackdown on peaceful dissent continues, the generals may not be so impervious to outside pressures as we are repeatedly told. For one thing, Villarosa was unexpectedly summoned to a meeting today, Friday, with Deputy Foreign Minister Maung Myint in the remote capital of Naypyidaw.

And in another surprise move on Thursday, General Than Shwe agreed to meet Aung San Suu Kyi - one day before an image of Suu Kyi appeared on Burmese state TV for the first time in years.
Diplomats and opposition figures were skeptical that the offer was genuine but, nonetheless, expressed hope that the meeting with Suu Kyi - something she has requested for years - would materialize.
That skepticism is well-founded, as the general said there were two preconditions to such a meeting: Suu Kyi
would have to drop her support for international sanctions and abandon her confrontational attitude,
according to state media. Those conditions can be read equally as demanding she confess to crimes she hasn't committed, as members of her party say, or as an offer to graciously accept her surrender. However, the very fact that the offer was made, even as a ploy, is an indication that the junta is concerned with the international outrage and the possibility of additional sanctions.

Such sanctions can be applied not only against Burma but against companies profiting by the repression, and calls for those sorts of sanctions are growing. For example,
[t]he ITUC [International Trade Union Confederation] is writing to several hundred companies known or suspected of having business links to Burma to pull out of the country and “stop propping up the brutal regime”, and is calling on governments to extend economic sanctions to cover all economic sectors. ...

“No company can claim to have clean hands if it is doing business in or with Burma, since the Generals take their cut out of every deal. We have been calling for several years on companies to disinvest, and those who have refused to do so will now be exposed to the full weight of public condemnation for effectively supporting a ruthless, corrupt and bloody dictatorship”, said ITUC General Secretary Guy Ryder. ...

The international trade union movement and the European Trade Union Confederation have for many years called on the EU to include Burmese state monopolies covering gas, oil, mining, tropical woods and precious stones in the list of companies with which EU-based multinationals are forbidden to do business.

“The junta’s murderous reaction to the demonstrations in recent days shows how far they will go to maintain total power, and continue lining their own pockets at the expense of the massive majority who are deprived of access to proper healthcare, education, decent food and other essentials. Only a tiny few benefit from Burma’s links to foreign business, and they are the very authors of the murder, torture and violence which is still going on,” said Ryder.
Not all the news is good, of course: China and Russia continue to oppose any Security Council action, claiming it is an internal matter that does not threaten international peace or security. And The Nation newspaper (Bangkok, Thailand) quotes Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, speaking in Singapore's capacity as chairman of ASEAN, as saying
[a]ttempting to isolate Burma's military regime by heaping on sanctions or taking a tougher line is likely to be "counterproductive,"
and only "engagement" and "a fresh approach" will accomplish anything.
"It will have to be based on reconciliation among all parties [including the military] and a peaceful, progressive transition to a government enjoying greater legitimacy at home and recognition abroad," he said. "But it will take time."
These things always do in the minds of those focused on stability rather than justice.

(Now, give Lee his due: ASEAN has, as I've noted before, taken a tougher line on Burma than the group normally would about a member nation. But even so, you can be sure the cry to be patient clangs on the ears of those under the boot. I'm reminded of the passage from Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" where he wrote that
[w]e know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant 'Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
So yes to ASEAN's stepping away from postured neutrality - but no to its expectation of unlimited time and its assumption of good will on the part of the junta.)

On the other hand, there is this from Asia Times for October 1, via BurmaNet:
There are indications that the ruling State Peace and Development Council’s (SPDC’s) top two generals are at loggerheads over how to proceed in the aftermath of the crackdown.

SPDC second-in-command General Maung Aye reportedly opposed using force against the tens of thousands of monks who took to the streets, bringing him into conflict with Senior General Than Shwe, according to sources close to Maung Aye. Some soldiers in the old capital of Yangon and the city of Mandalay last week reportedly refused to obey their senior officers’ commands to attack or shoot at protesting monks, according to diplomatic sources in Yangon. Several aid workers in Mandalay reportedly witnessed soldiers there refusing to open fire when ordered by commanding officers.
Clearly, as things have fallen out so far, Than Shwe is in charge. But the very existence of such divisions and the reports of soldiers refusing orders are more signs that the imposing edifice of military dictatorship might - might, I say - actually be riddled with cracks that the iron chains of oppression might - might, I say - actually be about to rust through. Tim at Green Left Infoasis posted a link to an article from The Socialist Worker (UK) which noted aptly that
[i]t is possible for a mass movement to take on a repressive military dictatorship and win – it happened in the Philippines against Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, in Thailand against General Suchinda Kraprayoon in May 1992 and in Indonesia against President Suharto in 1998.
Interestingly, last week the BBC carried an article comparing the Burmese junta's situation with that of Suharto and concluded that the generals do not face several of the weaknesses Suharto did. However, the key question for us right now is not what we can determine in retrospect but what can be known in the present, any present. Did Suharto, did either of the others cited in the Socialist Worker article (and they could have cited a number of others outside the region), look weak, vulnerable, before the resistance broke out - or was is the emergence of the resistance that revealed the weaknesses? In most cases of government collapse, it's the latter. So may it may be - so let it be - with Burma.

Reminder: Tomorrow, do something to remember Burma and the suffering of the Burmese. Go to a vigil or a demonstration if there is one near you. If not, wear red or maroon. Write Congress. Write a letter to a company doing business in Burma. Light a candle. Wear an armband. But do something even if it seems pointless because if nothing else - if nothing else - it will remind you of what's important.

Oh, and by the way: The video came via Crooks and Liars.

Footnote: Memo to self - Never again link to a USA Today story. Going back there now to check something, I find a completely different story at the link that doesn't even contain the quote I used. Geez, that sucks.

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