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27 September 2007

Burma’s hour of need

Fine words are not enough. The international community must find a coherent strategy to deal with th

By Sholto Byrnes

When New Statesman readers voted Aung San Suu Kyi the greatest hero of our time in May last year, there was no doubting the strength of feeling over the plight of the Burmese people. The pro-democracy leader, who has spent much of the past 17 years under house arrest, received three times as many nominations as Nelson Mandela.

In August 2006, we devoted a special issue to Burma. “Is there hope in the land of the generals?” we asked, as we focused on the tragedy of a country that has suffered under the rule of a military dictatorship since 1962, when General Ne Win seized the power he held on to until 1988.

That year is significant, for it was the time of the last major challenge to the ruling junta. Ne Win did step down, and in 1990 elections were held. But the generals did not relax their control of the country; Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won 82 per cent of the vote but was never allowed to form a government. And the protests that had led to a shifting of power within the regime had been put down with a barbarism and cruelty for which Burma’s leaders are too well-known. Troops fired on peaceful demonstrators in Rangoon and other cities, killing several thousand and arresting many who have never been seen again.

For those who have kept a close eye on this secretive country, where even unauthorised possession of a fax machine is punishable by a 15-year jail sentence, the events of the past two weeks have unfolded with an awful inevitability. At first the red-robed monks could take to the streets without interference. The authorities even allowed them to walk past Suu Kyi’s house, through a road normally blocked by guards. When Suu Kyi came out to greet the monks, in her first public appearance since 2003, the world hoped that this could be the beginning of the end for a regime that has impoverished a country once known as the rice basket of Asia, and in which the annual sum spent on health care per person is a miserable 19p. All over the country, the monks, who have a special place as the clergy of the Buddhist religion followed by the vast majority (including the military), were joined by many thousands of ordinary Burmese. Could the cries of “democracy” prove unstoppable?

But then the crackdown began. A curfew was imposed, and gatherings of more than five people were banned. Nevertheless, several hundred protesters gathered by Rangoon’s famed Shwe dagon Pagoda. Troops fired tear gas, beat demonstrators and dragged some away in trucks. At the time of writing, live ammunition has not been used, but if it is, Ne Win’s words from 1988 provide a chilling warning: “When the army shoots, it shoots straight.”

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President Bush has announced new sanctions. Gordon Brown has written to the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, calling for “concerted international action” to discourage the regime from perpetrating violence on its citizens, and has urged the Security Council to meet immediately. These fine words may not be enough. The global community has offered an abundance of sympathy for Burma over the years – and precious little in the way of real help. As Desmond Tutu wrote in our special issue: “Protracted hand-wringing, the counter economic interests of some countries, and an absence of courage and vision over the years, have meant that there has been no coherent international government strategy on how to tackle Burma’s intransigent rulers.”

Some believe the regime must be isolated, starved of trade until it collapses. Others think the international community must swallow its repugnance for the generals and encourage reform through engagement with the outside world. The key is China, not only the regional superpower but also one of Burma’s biggest trading partners and a major supporter of the junta. Only in January, China used its UN Security Council veto to block criticism of the regime. China’s interest in democracy is minimal. What is definitely in its interests, however, is a stable Burma. The military has kept a lid on Burma’s internal ethnic tensions through brutal suppression. If China suspects that, in the long term, the courage and defiance of the freedom movement must overwhelm a government that can only maintain its position through violence – displays of which Beijing most certainly wishes to avoid in the run-up to its Olympics – it could play an invaluable role in the future of a country that has suffered so grievously for so long.

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