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Burma's Rulers Isolated But Defiant

The crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Burma has sparked widespread international condemnation. But the repression in Burma is long standing. Western nations have consistently condemned the ruling military's policies, but Burma's neighbors have usually been reluctant to publicly criticize the generals. But as VOA Correspondent Gary Thomas reports, things may be changing in the neighborhood.

For much of the 40 years of its existence, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations had one cardinal rule: never publicly speak ill of a fellow ASEAN member government. ASEAN preferred what was termed "constructive engagement" with Burma instead of punitive actions like economic and trade sanctions, which Western nations have imposed.

But in reaction to the recent events in Burma, ASEAN said it was "appalled" at the use of automatic weapons on demonstrators and expressed "revulsion" at the government's actions.

Michael Green, a former senior director for Asia affairs on the U.S. National Security Council, says ASEAN's surprisingly sharp reaction reflects changes since Burma joined the group 10 years ago.

"The biggest change, frankly, is in Southeast Asia, where 10, 15 years ago you had primarily authoritarian governments in Southeast Asia, arguing that Asian values are different, democracy does not take root," said Green. "But it is a very different neighborhood today."

Green says that although ASEAN has been tough, the reactions of individual governments in the region have been less than forceful.

"ASEAN, the Southeast Asian neighbors, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has been tough - tougher than people might have expected verbally," said Green. "China has expressed grave concern and other things that rhetorically are different."

"But China provides most of the regime's aid. India, which is a democracy and should be on the right side of this issue, and indeed was until it switched its policy in the early '90s to accommodate the junta, has been oddly silent," he added.

China is Burma's largest aid donor. Some analysts say China should use its leverage with Burma to push for change. But Derek Mitchell, a former special assistant for Asian affairs at the Pentagon, says that, given the sharp putdown of pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989, Beijing is in no position to condemn Burma's actions.

"Obviously they live in a glass house," said Mitchell. "I mean, how are they going to come out and oppose a regime that shoots their people in the street for wanting political change? This is something they have their own experience with, and they do not want to set a precedent for external interference in that regard."

China and India are also the biggest providers of arms to Burma's military government. Thailand is Burma's biggest export market, with an estimated 20 percent of Thailand's electricity coming from Burmese natural gas. India also seeks to get access to some of Burma's oil and gas resources.

Russia has planned to provide Burma with nuclear reactor technology, which analysts say is a cause for concern. Russia and China have both vetoed past U.N. Security Council resolutions critical of Burma.

Singapore's foreign minister George Yeo told the Straits Times newspaper that Burma's neighbors have little influence over developments there.

Mitchell says Burma's government has turned a deaf ear to diplomatic entreaties to relinquish power, because the generals fear being subjected to reprisals or war crimes trials if they do.

"They have seen all this happen, and they say, 'not us, we can't go that route.' So it is part of their concern and paranoia about giving up any kind of control because they never know if they'll get a bullet in the back of the head," said Mitchell.

Some human rights activists are calling on governments to use the threat of a boycott of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing to force China to pressure Burma. But no government has responded to that call.