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World Awaits Democratic Change in Burma

  • Anna Zalewski

Normalcy has now returned to Myanmar - these were the words used by Burmese Foreign Minister U Nyan Win in his speech on Monday to the U.N. General Assembly. But, according to Khin Maung Win, deputy chief editor of the independent media center, Democratic Voice of Burma based in Norway, the quiet seems to be on the surface only, and misleading: “Currently the troops are patrolling the city of Rangoon and we see more troops than people on the streets," said Khin Maung Win. "So for a time being the troops are controlling the demonstrations. But it doesn't mean they will be able to control forever.”

Only last week the world watched in awe as a growing number of peaceful demonstrators took to the streets in Rangoon and other major cities. This time Burma's revered monks took a leading role in the protest. At first, the world could not agree on the color of their robes - cinnamon, orange, maroon? At last it settled on saffron… But the civilized world was united in their support and admiration for the monks' courage and determination.

The United States led the way when President Bush in his address to the U.N. General Assembly on September 25 said: “Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma, where a military junta has imposed a 19-year reign of fear," he said.

The United Nation's Security Council, the European Union, and most astonishingly, the ASEAN countries followed with words of indignation and outrage. Unfortunately, the long anticipated meeting between Burma's military ruler General Than Shwe and U.N. Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari has not produced much in the way of results.

Still, Than Lwin Htun, Chief of VOA's Burmese Service expressed the gratitude of the Burmese people: “Burma received tremendous amount of the international attention this time," he said. "Of course straight away the United States government, President Bush imposed tougher sanctions. And also called for the UN's Security Council meetings on Burma… But there was some resistance on [from] China and Russia - the key players on Burma issues.”

Most analysts agree that China plays a crucial role in resolving the crisis in Burma. A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington said on Monday that his government is working hard to stem the violence in Burma and argued against efforts by activists to link participation in the 2008 Olympics to China's handling of Burma.

David Aikman, contributor to The American Spectator, and a long-time observer of the Asian political scene, explains China's difficult position.

“China has to tread a delicate line here, said David Aikman. “If it fails to make a note at all of the crackdown by the Burmese government, it risks being seen by the international community as really very cynical and even brutal; but on the other hand China cannot afford to be seen to be undermining support of the regime because then people would ask questions about China's own past. After all the Chinese crackdown in Tiananmen Square took place a year after the Burmese government crackdown on protests that resulted in about 3,000 deaths in 1988.”

We asked David Aikman of The American Spectator why, when the military first seized power in Burma in 1962, the country underwent a very different transformation from that of nearby countries such as Thailand or South Vietnam.

“Well, because the Burmese generals were sort of locked in an old-fashioned time-warp believing that socialism was the way of the future," he said. "In fact there was a joke. Chinese officials often used to say to us reporters in Beijing - The Burmese road to socialism proved that there are many twists and turns on the road to socialism. Basically from the 1980's the Chinese have known that the Burmese have just not been able to make progress with their economy, but they didn't particularly mind so long as there was no evidence of the strong democratic movement and that's what the Burmese government has been able to suppress.”

For now, unconfirmed reports indicate that as many as 200 protesters might have been killed in last week's crackdown. About 4,000 monks have been rounded up, many detained or missing. Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, and author of Outrage: Burma's Struggle for Democracy. He says the struggle for freedom in Burma is not over.

“I don't think it has ended, the anger is still there," said Bertil Lintner. "And I think the gap between the military and the population at large is wider than ever because of these concerted attacks on the Buddhists monks, the pillar of the morality in the country. I mean you cannot just do that and get away with it. And if you go back to Burma's history, I mean the whole Burmese national movement began in the 1920's when the British walked into the monasteries with the shoes on, with the boots on. And it really united the movement. In a sense it is happening now. The history is repeating itself. The military in Rangoon have been also walking into the monasteries with their boots on. The symbolism is very strong. And as in 1928 with the boots issue or the shoe issue in Burma was actually the beginning of the end, the beginning of the end of the British rule in Burma. So I think what we're seeing now is also the beginning of the end of rule of the present junta.”

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.