The New York Times reportsthat the release of Aung San Suu Kyi "just five days after an election that recast the structure of military rule in Myanmar" -- poured more cement into the foundation, that is -- "suggested that the generals who rule the country were confident of their position and ready to face down the devotion she still commands both among her countrymen and among Western nations."
By "face down the devotion," doesn't the Times staff means "yield to the devotion"? One of Burma's ruling generals' incentives for freeing Suu Kyi was to provide a key human rights indicator that the West could point to when making the case that the time has come to lift the embargo and sanctions on Burma before China corners the market all its resources.
Meanwhile, of Suu Kyi's stated intention to return to the human-rights fray, the Times reports that she "will be re-entering a battleground more complicated and difficult than the one she had faced in the past." For example, partly at Suu Kyi's behest, her party, the National League for Democracy "declined to take part in the election, calling it unfair and undemocratic, and was required to formally disband. But Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi was assailed for that decision by party members who saw the vote, however flawed, as an opening. . . . 'She'll be facing a mountain of expectation and challenges,' said Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy, a Thailand-based exile magazine."
Besides the internal divisions in her party, Suu Kyi is also being asked to address the results of the election and the fate of other political prisoners who remain behind bars. Meanwhile, Burma's festering wound, the junta's oppression of the country's ethnic minorities, has become inflamed "over the junta's border guard force . . . plan aimed at assimilating all armed ethnic groups under its command."
Suu Kyi's freedom, the Times concludes "may be a burden as much as it is a liberation." Let's not make her feel like being sequestered in her house was so bad after all.
As you've no doubt heard, the house arrest of the Burmese people's favorite daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, is due to expire on Saturday. Speculation is running rampant that the woman who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for advocating Burmese democracy and human rights may again be released from the house arrest under which she's been held for 14 of the last 20 years.
Last Sunday's the proxy party for Burma's ruling junta predictably won their vaunted elections. As Reuters reports, the junta might now . . .
. . . seek to win some international legitimacy by freeing Suu Kyi at a time when she is little threat to the formation of a government it can choose and control. Her release might also appease the Burmese public and ward off the threat of protests. If the military wants Western sanctions to be lifted, this would be a step in the right direction, although it would be highly unlikely embargoes would be relaxed immediately. The regime knows there is a fierce debate as to the effectiveness of sanctions and that U.S. and European investors are tempted by the country's vast resources and untapped potential.
In other words, the junta thinks that it wouldn't take much to convince the West to retract its sanctions. It may be right because measures such as these, adopted purely out of human-rights considerations (unless I'm missing something), are becoming -- in the words of Alberto Gonzalez when speaking about the Geneva Conventions -- "quaint" in today's increasingly mercenary world. Devoid of any such ethical compunctions, China is helping the junta develop natural gas and hydro-electric power, among other things. As well, it provides the junta with military equipment including fighter planes and naval vessels. The West not only wants in on Burma's resources, but seeks to keep them from China.
I've had a chat with Niall Couper from Amnesty International, who agrees that there's no way of knowing when the release could happen. He also points out that even if Aung San Suu Kyi is freed the junta could arrest her again the moment she addresses her supporters. He notes: "I wouldn't see this as a watershed moment. What you have here is one political prisoner among 2,200."
Not to mention the oppression of its ethnic minorities. Meanwhile, one might be tempted to suggest that since the prospect of re-(house) arrest prevents her from doing substantive work when freed, she should reject it if offered to avoid appearing like a plaything of the junta. But, under the terms of her house arrest, Suu Kyi is even prevented from spending time in her garden. Only human, she must feel at times like a ghost roaming around her rundown lake-side house. Whatever the outcome, bearing in mind that in the past Aung San Suu Kyi has been offered the option of leaving the country, her courage remains unimpeachable.
Revolutionary movements have lost their luster. Their leaders will never be romanticized again as the likes of Trotsky and Che Guevara once were. Since the onset of the Information Age, it's impossible to tune out the tendency of revolutionaries to resort to violent excesses that sometimes equal or exceed the forces against which they rebel.
Near Burma's eastern border of Thailand, the Karen ethnic group has long resisted what it calls the three A's -- annihilation, absorption, and assimilation -- by Burma's junta. In fact, over 60 years in duration, it's the world's longest-running war for independence -- or its most extended exercise in futility. Some background from a piece I wrote a couple of years ago:
The Karens, as well as other ethnic groups, actually arrived in Burma before the majority group known as the Burmans (as opposed to the Burmese, all the citizens of Burma). But, in the sixteenth century, the Burmans conquered most of Burma and proceeded to impose their will on the ethnics.
But the modern "origins of the ethnic hatred. . . can be traced back to the Anglo-Burmese wars," writes Benedict Rogers in his 2004 book World Without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma's Karen People. The Karens assisted the British in their efforts to conquer the Burmans. The British, in turn, allowed them a measure of autonomy (in part, also, because they were too far-flung to rule). The ethnics' first taste of freedom was an ironic byproduct of British colonialism.
During World War II, Burmese forces joined the invading Japanese in mercilessly attacking the Karens, who feared they were destined for genocide. But the Allies turned the tide on the Japanese and the Karens helped drive them out. The Karens hoped that they would be rewarded with statehood, but during the war Mountbatten of Burma had authorized a secret deal with the Burmans that left the Karens out in the cold.
Once Burma was granted its independence, the Karens sought to co-exist with the government. But, in 1949, General Ne Win, later the leader of the coup that installed junta rule, led militias on a rampage of Karen territory. In response, the Karen National Union (KNU) emerged to fight for the rights of the Karens and the establishment of Kawthoolei, the state around which their dreams revolve.
In recent years the disintegration of ceasefire talks has been a pretext for junta offensives against the Karens. Others include a perceived need on the part of the junta to engage in wholesale destruction of Karen villages to make room for large dam-building projects, as well as relocation of the capital from Yangon (Rangoon). . . . As of today, hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities have been forcibly relocated by the Burmese army, their villages burned to the ground. Tens of thousands have fled across the border to Thailand. Meanwhile, the army not only tortures and executes those villagers suspected of working with the insurgent groups, but forces others to labor as porters.
Adding insult to injury, the army uses children as soldiers, seeds the Karen territory with land mines, and then forces Karen people to act as mine-sweepers by traversing the terrain ahead of the army. As in Cambodia, citizens missing a leg, or parts of one, are common in the Karen regions.
But neither is the KNLA (the Karen National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the KNU) blameless. It too has been known to lay mines and use child soldiers. Also, according to Phil Thornton in his 2006 book, Restless Souls: Rebels, Refugees, Medics and Misfits on the Thai-Burma Border, one of its officers told him that because it can't afford to feed them, the KNLA often kills prisoners on the spot.
That said, it's still hard not to root for them, especially since as Burmese exile publication Mizzima reports Thursday, they're "strongly supported by local people." In fact, recently the KNLA had "in advance received information of junta troop movements in the Paikyone area" from their people. As a result . . .
Karen rebels in a 15-member squad equipped with only automatic rifles and the rain [Like that touch? -- RW] ambushed a government battalion with more than 100 troops on Tuesday, killing nine junta soldiers including the force's deputy commander and wounding 14 others. . . .
"There was heavy rain and creeks were flooded with torrents of water," [a spokesperson said]. "We took position and posted lookouts, then ambushed them." . . . The ambush resulted in the second heaviest loss this year for junta forces in their battle against the KNU. . . . In a clash on a highway [on May 10] the junta lost 13 soldiers and 20 were wounded.
What keeps the vastly outnumbered KNLA fighting? Would you believe . . . Sylvester Stallone? From my piece again:
Moviegoers were exposed to the plight of the Karens last year if they saw the fourth installment of Rambo, which was set in Burma (though filmed, in part, in Thailand). Sylvester Stallone demonstrated just how universal contempt for the junta had become, especially after it obstructed aid to [Cyclone] Nargis survivors. When John Rambo killed off 236 of its soldiers, objections were raised to one of the highest body counts of any action movie ever, but not to who was killed. Understandably, the film was reported to have boosted the morale of Karen freedom fighters who viewed it.
Whatever the effect of Sylvester Stallone on the Karen insurgency, the point is that the KNLA and its supporters draw inspiration from not only Hollywood attention and coverage by the media but also by new media. In June Mizzima reported:
Footage of clashes between Karen rebels and the Burmese Army posted on You Tube has become a hit with the Burmese online community. The video was recorded during running battles between government troops . . . and the Karen National Liberation Army's (KNLA) 3rd Brigade. . . . While You Tube was banned in Burma and internet speeds were still at dial-up-level quality, some people have still managed to download the footage using proxy servers. . . .
Thai-Burmese border town Mae Sot based blogger Dr. Lun Swe examined the impact that Web 2.0 and other new media was having on the Burmese opposition community and those living in exile. "The role of new media is a playing crucial role in our pro-democracy movement," he said. "The quickest way to post Burma-related news on the internet is on blogs at home and abroad."
Use of the new media has increased since the 2007 "saffron revolution", when monks led nationwide demonstrations, as the Web was one of the only sources of unregulated news and information.
Here's the video:
For more, insert "Myanamar 8888" into YouTube's search box. 8888 is an allusion to the day, August 8, 1988, that students protests erupted in Burma only to be brutally suppressed by the junta, with thousands killed. Myanmar 8888's videos are of a piece with the citizens armed with small video-cameras who filmed the 2007 Saffron Revolution. Their footage was smuggled out of the country and broadcast back into Burma via satellite, as seen in the 2009 documentary Burma VJ (highly recommended). We're also familiar with this phenomenon from Iran's Green Revolution.
In 1992 a junta official told Benedict Rogers, "In 10 years all Karens will be dead. If you want to see a Karen, you will have to go to a museum in Rangoon." Eighteen years later the Karen are still fighting to prevent the three "A"s of annihilation, absorption, and assimilation. But absent international pressure on the junta to cease and desist its systematic destruction of the Karen and other Burma ethnics, they might not be around in 28 years.
In the aftermath of the apparent transfer of nuclear technology and know-how from North Korea to Burma, the latter, reports Bertil Lintner at Asia Times Online, could soon be penalized with more international sanctions.
The prospect of that happening -- and already deep dissatisfaction over the close relationship with a pariah regime like Pyongyang . . . is reportedly stoking resentment among the Myanmar officer corps. Other officers like Sai Thein Win [who provided the Democratic Voice of Burma with photographs and documents] may therefore be waiting in the wings for an opportunity to defect and shed more light on Myanmar's deep and dark nuclear secrets. [To them] Myanmar's experiments with nuclear technology and missiles amount to little more than a waste of money in a country that desperately needs more funds dedicated to public health and education.
But don't elections scheduled for October offer hope of reform? In a review of a biography of the junta's leader, Gen. Than Shwe, elsewhere at Asia Times Online, Lintner writes . . .
A new generation of pundits. … believe a hitherto unknown generation of Young Turks and other supposed closet liberals within the military will come to the fore and push the country in a more democratic direction. … In all likelihood, however, foreign pundits will be proven wrong yet again. Benedict Rogers' highly readable new book [Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma's Tyrant] shows why Myanmar's military, even with Than Shwe's imminent retirement, has no intention of giving up power any time soon.
In an interview with a US television journalist on April 14, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong predicted that Burma's ruling generals will not easily give up power. … "If they are out, it's not just that the country and the government have changed, bu 'Where do I go and which jail would I be in and [what about] my children and my jewels and my billions?'" he said. ... [Than Shwe's] real concern is likely to be the loyalty of young army officers [who] may come to the fore in reshaping Burma as their roles change between being members of the armed forces or parliament. … [He] must ensure that his most trusted lieutenants take over the reins of both the new government and the armed forces so that his family and fortune will be protected.
Lintner sums up. "Whether Myanmar holds elections this year, next year, or never, all the structures he put in place signal that the military is geared to remain in power for the foreseeable future."
In Sanctioning Disaster (the June Guernica magazine) author Joel Whitney writes that Obama's policy on Burma "has something for everyone. It's a hodgepodge of baby-step diplomacy, self-righteous threats, and crippling economic sanctions." He then interviews Morten Pedersen, "a Burma scholar lurking in the bibliography of a lot of Burma policy books," who "insists that the sanctions . . . are undermining [President Obama's] diplomacy. Oh, and starving the Burmese."
According to Pedersen, Whitney writes, "the most dire rights violation he found was crushing poverty." Pedersen himself expands on that.
People especially in the U.S., are quick to say, "If you're not sanctioning then you are doing ASEAN-style engagement, which is commercial engagement." The kind of engagement I'm talking about is what I term "principle engagement," … the entire range of human rights, not just political and civil rights, but also socioeconomic rights. [Besides] it is not possible to target sanctions; because if you target them to hurt the generals, they can pass it on [and] deflect it.
But such an approach would seem anathema to a Congress that prioritizes condemnation and punishment of the generals over the well being of the people of Burma.
Meanwhile, Pedersen doesn't think that . . .
[Assistant Secretary of State] Kurt Campbell flying into the capital, talking about how they should conduct the elections [is] gonna lead anywhere. … We simply don't have the means, the leverage, to change a country like that in the dramatic ways that we tend to focus on. … But we do know that conversations about economic policy . . . from time to time have an impact and lead to changes in governance.
But what exactly (their personal wealth aside) is uppermost in the generals' minds? Pedersen explains.
You need to accept that national security, as the generals define it, is their key concern. … So when you engage with them you need to. … frame your conversations in a way that . . . accepts that there are security concerns that are legitimate. [Emphasis added.]
Then maybe it can be demonstrated to them, says Pedersen, that . . .
. . . other countries in Southeast Asia have also faced risks [to] their country [such as rebellion or civil war]. Rather than addressing that problem militarily like the Burmese have done, [those other countries] have addressed it economically by pushing economic growth and spreading it to provinces.
Do Focal Points readers agree with interview-er and -ee that human rights are, in large part, economic well-being and that it makes more sense to engage with the generals -- odious as they are -- rather than beat the dead sanctions horse?
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