Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Saffron Revolution; a catalyst for freedom

May Ng
February 10, 2008

(May Ng is from the Southern Shan State of Burma and the NY Regional Director for Justice for Human Rights in Burma.)

Ne Win, who was trained in fascism in WWII, warned in 1988 that 'when the army shoots it shoots to hit' those who dare to protest. And thousands of young protesters were killed in military firing during the 1988 uprising.

And again during the Saffron Revolution last September, Burmese soldiers shot and killed unarmed citizens including monks.

Mary P.Callahan, an expert on Myanmar military, wrote that, "after independence from Britain, the World War II practices of politics in Burma have made 'violence' 'the currency of power.'

Burma's post colonial operational failure, that included army mutiny, ethnic rebellion, communist insurgency, warlordism, and economic chaos, paved the way for the Myanmar Tatmadaw (Burmese army) which was modeled after the 1950s Yugoslav and Israeli armies. Callahan said that the Myanmar Tatmadaw came to use 'violence' 'the once despised coercive tools of colonials' not only to pacify but also to mould citizens into dependable defenders of the army state.

In 1956, the Directorate of Psychological Warfare presented the first draft of what became "the official ideology" of the post-1962 socialist government and the present day military regime.

Entitled "Some Reflections on Our Constitution," the paper recommended the review of constitutional flaws and adoption of a draconian "Anti-Subversion Ordinance," to give the government the tools necessary to crack down on its opponents, and allows any and all critics of the government and army to be treated as enemies of the state.

In September 1958 the army's Directorate of Education and Psychological Warfare circulated a critique of the fundamental tenets of the Union's Constitution. And by 1958 the Constitution was no longer sacred. With this, the Burmese Tatmadaw has created a choke hold on political power unrivaled in the world. And in this solution, citizens became barriers to the army's consolidation of political power and national sovereignty, concluded Mary Callahan.

An onerous British law, the Public Order Preservation Act, Section Five, was also resurrected to arrest as many as four hundred government critics, including Aung San's brother, U Aung Than. During 1958, the Press Registration Act of 1876 was amended and the 'Psywar' Directorate shut down five or six newspapers and imprisoned numerous editors, publishers. Today, the same scene is eerily repeated again in Burma.

Now, after over 45 years of army rule Burmese political power remains in the hands of 'the specialists in violence,' including members of the Tatmadaw, antigovernment armed forces, criminal gangs and paramilitaries, wrote Callahan.

And she continued that even "more menacing than the records of murderous militaries in Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Indonesia, and the Philippines, is the comparative 'durability' of the Tatmadaw's command relationship with its society."

Since the 1962 military coup, the Tatmadaw came to dominate all levels of government, civil administration and commerce in Burma. The Defense Services Institute, DSI, was established in 1951 with the military officers in all key positions and began to run the most powerful business organization in the nation. By 1960, it included banks, shipping lines and the largest import-export operation in the country.

Again, in 1990, the military junta established the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited, or UMEH, which has grown into the largest indigenous firm, jointly owned by the government and retired and active duty defense services personnel. UMEH and a second military firm, the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), hold interests in banking, gems, tourism, trade, real estate, transportation, power, iron and steel factories, and foodstuffs.

After the 1988 uprising China became a major economic and military supporter for the army junta. According to a Burma expert, Andrew Selth, one school of thought believes that small poverty stricken Burma will inevitably succumb to the pressures of its much larger neighbour, and effectively become a pawn in China's bid to achieve world power status.

It is also believed that China's position on the UN Security Council is seen by the Rangoon regime as an ultimate guarantee against action by the UN.

But Selth said that Burma has always been suspicious of China, and it may not be Beijing but the Myanmar generals that have the whip hand. Neither China nor anyone else can predict or manage the behaviour of the Myanmar generals. In addition, violence and coercion as a universal solution to all challenges to power has been encoded into the mind and the manual of Myanmar Tatmadaw long before.

In this approach, a massive military machine is believed to be necessary in Burma to protect foreign investments especially the planned gas pipelines into China, and also to encourage economic growth in Burma. Accordingly, China and Tatmadaw army both consider Burma's internal stability as vital to the survival of Burma's independence and the Myanmar military's sovereignty.

The Central Statistical Organization of Myanmar Economic Ministry reported that Burma's foreign direct investment totaled more than $750 million during the fiscal year that ended March 31, 2007. Out of which China, South Korea, Russia, Singapore and Britain invested in projects worth $752.7 million, mainly in the oil and gas sector.

While the monks and nuns are still in prisons and labour camps, businesses from China, India, ASEAN countries and the west are already lobbying for return to 'business as usual' with the military; often citing the half hearted western sanctions as failures. The NY Times recently commented that, only in a short time after the Saffron Revolution many countries appear to have lost enthusiasm for challenging the junta, either because they are more eager for contracts with Myanmar involving resources like oil and gems, or they fear creating instability in the region. It also said that China, India and the Southeast Asian nations are key, but Europe and America also have commercial interests there.

After some modest growth in the mid 1990s, Burma once again faces serious economic problems. The early onrush of foreign investment in tourism and small manufacturing industries has practically dried up as a result of poor economic management by the regime and the Asian financial crisis in 1997. Corruption has reached unprecedented levels and according to the Transparency International's 2007 Index, Myanmar ranks the lowest score of 1.4 out of 10, along with Somalia. And the world's energy crisis will worsen the economic burden of the poor and it will continue to threaten Burma with the possibility of another major uprising.

The decline of the Tatmadaw is also visible inside the army. Jane's Defense Weekly reported in 2007, that the Myanmar army battalions are poorly managed, resourced, and plagued by desertion, and suffer from false reporting, haphazard inspections, and poor record keeping; and that morale among enlisted ranks is low. High desertion rates and illness such as HIV or Hepatitis B too is taking their toll.

All of these factors have translated into erosion of discipline and lessening of personal commitment to the Tatmadaw's professionalism. To address these problems the regime has further isolated the armed forces from the rest of the population by creating a state within a state where the members of the Tatmadaw, their relatives and supporters became a privileged caste within the Burmese society. But this also increases the possibility of armed opposition from the alienated population while the dissatisfaction and active dissent within the army still remains.

According to Callahan, Myanmar armed forces are not the omnipotent, fully unified organization that contemporary political debate implies; and that the weaknesses probably account for the regime's unyielding behaviour, as much. But breaking the political deadlock between the opposition and the SPDC will only be the first tiny step in the direction of demilitarizing this polity. And Callahan warned that the removal of the handful of top generals and colonels from the government, and their replacement with elected officials, will not transform overnight the century old command relationship between state and society.

While policy disagreements and personal differences clearly exist in the highest circles of the Tatmadaw and favors are doubtless dispensed with some return in mind, according to Andrew Selth, the generals are unlikely to do anything to seriously threaten armed forces unity. The October 2007 Janes's Intelligence concluded that an emerging younger generation of military officers assuming control in the medium term will likely follow the same policies that have preserved the Myanmar Tatmadaw's sovereignty.

But since last September, anti-junta sentiment inside Burma and around the world has reached a new high especially because of the lawlessness of Myanmar Army, inside Burma. In January, the International Burmese Monks Organization declared that the horrifying crimes committed against the monks in particular have laid bare the false piety of the junta and the atrocities will have far reaching consequences.

Aung San Suu Kyi has recently warned that, Burma will now have to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. In this climate, extreme violence may become the last and only resort left with which to resist the government's aggression. There has already been an incidence where a ruthless local official was beheaded and his head was mounted on a bamboo pole as warning to other cruel agents of the junta. If the majority of the people begin to take on a "do or die" attitude and start a violent revolt, not only the ruling dictators but also the entire military machinery will crumble and the future of Myanmar military will no longer be assured.

As long as Aung San Suu Kyi and the 1990 elected representatives are continued to be persecuted, the announcement of the 2010 elections will not help lessen the people's anger. In the aftermath of bloody Saffron Revolution, the generals may have lost the last opportunity to address their lack of legitimacy. Unlike Cuba, North Korea and Iran, the Myanmar regime did not come into power with a popular support from the people; and the crisis of legitimacy will continue to haunt the military junta.

Historian Niall Ferguson wrote in "Empire" that; the moral transformation that turned Britain from the world leading enslaver to the world leading emancipator of the African slaves began in a holy Trinity Church in England, with activists armed only with pens, paper and moral indignation. And at the end, the abominable slave trade was abolished in spite of the fierce oppositions from powerful vested interests.

Niall pointed out that "like all such great changes it had small beginnings."

The breathtaking Saffron Revolution of 2007 has united many Burmese people. If a small beginning can change three hundred years old slavery in the face of powerful interests, the monks' spectacular September uprising may yet be the most important 'catalyst for change' that has come to Burma.

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