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Neighbors Fear Ethnic Conflict in Burma If Government Collapses 


While Burma's neighbors have condemned the military government's violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, experts say Southeast Asian nations fear a sudden collapse of the Burmese government. They worry that ethnic tensions could tear the country apart, with regional consequences, if there is a sudden vacuum of power. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from our Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok.

The sight of thousands of anti-government demonstrators in the streets of Burma's main cities a month ago raised the possibility that the military rulers' days might be numbered.

That prospect faded quickly as the Burmese military cracked down on the protests.

Rangoon, where much of the activity took place, is quiet. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of monks, students and other demonstrators are in prison. An untold number are dead after soldiers used guns and batons to crush the demonstrations.

Witnesses say security forces still fan out every day, arresting anyone who is suspected of sympathizing with efforts to end military rule.

Over 45 years, Burma's generals have secured almost total control of the country. They use the army to shut down dissidents among the majority ethnic Burmans, and to control ethnic minority groups that have long been fighting for autonomy or independence.

It is those ethnic groups that cause Burma's neighbors the greatest concern. Modern Burma is in large part a creation of British colonialists, who brought together various groups with different cultures and languages.

Many regional analysts say that combination of ethnicities could ultimately be the country's undoing. Bertil Lintner is an author who has studied and written extensively about Burma.

"Potentially Burma could break up like Yugoslavia, because it does contain a number of ethnic groups which have very little in common," Lintner said. "Burma would have to recognize the separate identity of its separate nationalities in order to stay together, which in a way is the same as India did after independence."

Members of ethnic groups such as the Karen, who live near Burma's western border with Thailand, say that instead of accepting the diversity, Burma's military - dominated by ethnic Burmans - has done the opposite.

Mahn Sha, general secretary of the insurgent Karen National Union, says his group supported the recent demonstrations against the military government, and he says activists continue to regroup despite the crackdown.

"Our Karen people are still fighting this military regime (after) more than a half century. We never stopped fighting because this (government) is truly not good for our people. So, this time we also made an understanding with the demonstrations and we will work together in the future," he said.

Burma is a mosaic of cultures and religions. Burmans - overwhelmingly Buddhist - make up 68 percent of the population. The largest ethnic group is the Shan, who have cultural links with Thailand or Laos and make up nine percent. The Karen account for seven percent, while the Rakhine people make up four percent.

Eighty-nine percent of the overall population is Buddhist, but there are significant Muslim and Christian populations.

Burmese leaders have sought to create a nation dominated by the Burman culture. One example is the military rulers' 1989 decision to change the country's official name from Burma to Myanmar.

Bertil Lintner notes that the two names mean the same, but the fact that "Myanmar" is a Burman word indicates the military's desire to force that culture on all. He says the military went on to impose Burman names in areas where the language is not spoken, building resentment around the country.

"If you look at a map of Shan state today, all the places, all the local place names have been Burmanized beyond recognition. … That could explode once the government falls, if it falls, because by refusing to recognize a separate identity of the various nationalities, you're basically undermining their national identity," Lintner said.

Some of Burma's fellow members in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, have expressed concern that a collapse of the military government could lead to open ethnic conflict and the breakup of Burma.

Singapore, which chairs ASEAN this year, has said it does not want to see regime change in Burma for fear it could lead to chaos in whole region.

On Monday, Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo told parliament that the Burmese generals' repression is the lesser of two evils as far as Singapore is concerned.

"Is it in our interest for Myanmar to be Balkanized? It cannot be. So we decided to bite our tongue and to keep Myanmar in the family, because it serves a long-term strategic self-interest best," he said.

Thailand has not openly expressed the same view, but Thai officials worry about the consequences of a government collapse in Burma. In the past decades, tens of thousands of Burmese refugees have fled to Thailand.

Chaos if the military government falls is not a foregone conclusion, however.

Indonesia a few years ago made the transition from military-dominated government to democracy, and kept together a vast country with hundreds of different ethnic and religious groups.

Before that transition, some ASEAN countries had expressed the view that only the military could hold Indonesia together - but they have been proved wrong.

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