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    Looking Back at Myanmar’s Political Struggles

    On Sep. 24, 2007, Myanmar, a military regime of 19 years, saw its largest protest since 1988, with up to 100,000 people marching through the city of Rangoon demanding better living conditions and national reconciliation.

    The series of protests began on Aug. 15 when the government issued a sharp increase in the price of fuel, up five-fold for compressed gas, resulting in severe effects on the costs of public transportation and daily living expenses in one of the poorest countries in Asia. Consecutive protests were dealt with military action, stirring up the anger of involved Buddhist monks who make up a big portion of the highly religious country.

    But anger not only developed from those in Myanmar at the time, but also from the global community, and here at Stony Brook, some people were affected as well.

    Htay Hlaing, a Burmese graduate student in physics at Stony Brook who left Myanmar in 2002, pointed out that the recent protests in Myanmar are similar to the protests of 1988 when, after a drastic demonetization, thousands of people spoke out against the dictatorship of that time. “[It is] essentially the same as today, but with a different name,” he said.

    Hlaing expressed his fear of government assaults on the Burmese people, and these assaults would make it unlikely for the majority of people to stand up against the junta.

    On Sept. 21, the Alliance of all Burmese Buddhist Monks said the military government was “the enemy of the people,” and called for participation in the protests that were held in 24 towns across Myanmar.

    On Sept. 26, the military junta started its crackdown on the protests, simultaneously shutting off Internet, radio and mobile phone systems to prevent further organized protests, as well as to stop national and international news coverage on the crackdown.

    In the following days the junta security forces began raiding monasteries, beating and eventually detaining 2,100 monks. Protests carried out by activists, students, and peasants supporting democracy continued, but were dealt with cruelty.

    “People are afraid, really afraid,” he said. “[It’s] only because the government raised prices so much that people could not live [well enough] anymore that they started [to protest]. Normally that wouldn’t happen. Also? they don’t know. They don’t know about the past, because the government changes the history taught in schools.”

    Hlaing noted the importance of Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and head of the National League for Democracy who studied in the United Kingdom and took part in the 1988 protests. She was awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her peaceful and non-violent struggle under a military dictatorship. As the leader of the National League for Democracy, which won the elections of 1990, she earned the right to be prime minister if the military government would let the elected assembly convene. She is the person most Burmese people put their hopes in, but she is kept under careful observation.

    Hlaing, who said he eventually wants to return to Myanmar, also said he did not believe changes towards democracy would occur anytime soon. “There is still a long way to go,” he said.

    Shocked by the pictures of military violence, the United Nation’s reaction was to send special envoy Ibrahim Gambari to Myanmar to hold talks with the military junta and the opposition. As a result, a liaison minister was appointed to engage in a dialog with Aung San Suu Kyi. Talks with junta leaders, however, were put under the condition that Suu Kyi renounces calls for sanctions against the regime, which would remove her from any political power. Correspondence between Suu Kyi and other members of her party was not allowed.

    Indian Ambassador and visiting professor to Stony Brook, Harsh Bhasin, shared his view on the situation.

    Bhasin called Gambari’s visit to Myanmar a good thing “on paper,” but he wished that Gambari had traveled through China, since “only China has the power to change politics in Myanmar.”

    Starting in the late 1980s with weapons sales, China became Myanmar’s prime trade partner, receiving in return military benefits through granted access of the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea including Myanmar’s ports, as well as economic ones from special deals for its gas and oil reserves.

    “Any [political] change [in Myanmar] would adversely affect China’s interests,” Bhasin said. As a result, China vetoed a resolution on Myanmar in the Security Council.

    Other countries, however, have clearly expressed their interests in a democratization of Myanmar, condemning the junta’s brutal crackdown. Most vocal among these countries is the United States, who has expanded U.S. sanctions, freezing more bank accounts of Burmese military leaders and prohibiting doing business with these individuals.

    The European Union, condemning the crackdown verbally, referred to the sanctions established after the 1988 crackdown. Being in place for almost 20 years, these sanctions have proven to be relatively ineffective due to the low degree of economic exchange and some loopholes that, for example, still allow the French oil company Total and the U.S. company, Chevron, to continue their investments in Myanmar.

    The Association of Southeast Asian Nations adopted an approach of constructive engagement by granting Myanmar full membership in 1997. The absence of political change in Myanmar has become an embarrassment for the association, and it has openly criticized the Burmese military junta.

    “Ten years ago, India supported Aung San Suu Kyi,” Bhasin said, but insurgency movements at India’s border required cooperation from Myanmar. When India withdrew business from Myanmar, Chinese investors filled this economic void quickly. “The loophole in all the sanctions was actually a floodgate,” he said.

    Driven by export and foreign investments, China’s dollar reserves surpassed $1 trillion in 2006. This diminished the leverage the United States, as well as the rest of the world, has on China.

    One way to push China to assume a more active role in Myanmar’s democratization process, however, may be through the Olympics being held in Beijing this summer.

    Calls for a boycott get louder — most notably articulated by Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Archbishop Emeritus, Desmond Tutu, who said he would boycott the Beijing Olympics, if China didn’t change their position. Fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jody Williams, human rights organizations, and Burmese exiles joined him in this protest.

    Although China is used to similar human rights violations as Myanmar, Bhasin, who also worked in Beijing, disagreed. “The Chinese are afraid of losing face and if the Olympics flop, they would lose face,” he said. “Let the free world say: ‘We will not participate in the Olympics if China keeps on supporting the junta.’ People have to say to their governments: ‘Put your money where your mouth is!’ But which western country has the guts to do it?”

    In the wake of a decreased output of headlines from Myanmar, probably no country has the “guts”. In the remaining months, attention moved the Middle East and Kenya, but the situation in Myanmar remains the same.

    As a last uprising, 100 monks marched through the central town Pakokku on Oct. 31. On Nov. 2, the Burmese military junta announced intentions to expel U.N.’s top diplomat to Myanmar, Charles Petrie, who criticized the junta after the brutal crackdowns; then on New Year’s Day, the junta increased the fees for satellite television to 167 times the old value, corresponding to three times more money than an average Burmese earns per year.

    After 60 years of independence from British colonial rule, the Burmese people are far from being independent. They challenged its military dictatorship last year, and now they need the global community to help them take steps towards a really truly independent Myanmar.

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