Monday, September 22, 2008

Saffron Revolution: bloodstained line between good and evil

May Ng
Saturday, 20 September 2008 20:17

On 17 September 2008, the International Burmese Monks Organization held a silent protest prayer in front of the Burmese embassy in New York, to commemorate the first anniversary of 'the Saffron Revolution.' Almost everyone who walked by gave the Burmese monks thumbs-up, and some expressed obeisance.

Defying orders of the military junta, 60 Burmese monks also gathered in Sittwe on September 18, in memory of last year's protest inside Burma. And it seems that even after one year, the monks in Burma—the most tyrannical and totalitarian of the states studied-- as per Martin J. Dent (2004), are still a force to be reckoned with. Though subtle, their influence through prayers of loving kindness has already been felt across the globe.

During the Saffron Revolution last year, the United States became a key advocate for the Burmese democracy movement, and found itself leading the international allies in support of the Burmese monks. This in turn helped ease the tension caused by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, between the United States and its allies. And last August, first lady Laura Bush visited Karen refugee camps on Thai-Burma border on her way to the Beijing Olympics. It was a significant gesture because the Karen's 60 years struggle for autonomous rights remains one of the most bitter and volatile crisis in Burma today.

For unfortunate and tragic reasons, extreme ethnocentric nationalism of the Burmese military was already deeply entrenched, well before the independence of Burma. According to David Brown, an expert in ethnic politics in Asia, "in 1942 Burman members of the Burma Independence Army (BIA) massacred Karens in the Salween District, whom they regarded as British collaborators. This heightened Karen distrust of Burman domination so that, by 1947 many of them were demanding the formation of a British Karen colony which would remain separate from 'Burman Proper'. When the British failed to back this demand, the Karens felt betrayed."

Benedict Rogers (2004) wrote that the subsequent 1947 Constitution did not have any provisions for a Karen State and the entire question of the Karen's future was left to be decided after independence. And according to Jack Fong (2008), by this time many leaders of the Burman leaders were convinced that a postcolonial conspiracy, namely the British and Americans, would be harnessing the Karen resistance as a vehicle to destabilize the country. The ensuing violence from this belief caused a deep division in both the Burman and Karen communities which has never been healed.

And thus the longest and most stubborn struggle for ethnic rights for self-determination was born at the same time world's most enduring totalitarianism began to take root in Burma. No one should underestimate the root cause that continues to fuel the iron grip of Burmese military junta. From its inception, not only the extreme nationalism binds the Burmese military together, more importantly it is the lavish lifestyle of its elites, at the expense of entire Burma's economy, that keeps them toeing the line.

Even today, the Burmese military regularly accuses its opponents of being western collaborators. But, on the contrary, historical evidence indicates that it is the army, which profits from outside engagement and aid, beginning with arms shipment to Burma from Britain and India at the time of independence.

Though Americans have fought alongside the Burmese Army against fascism during World War II in Burma, it was the Americans' support for the Kuomintang (KMT) forces inside Burma's territory that had the most profound geopolitical effect on Burma for years to come. The KMT's incursion into the Shan State only a few years after independence drew the hyper-nationalistic Burmese forces into the virgin Shan territory, for the first time in its history. And these intrusions precipitated a half century long occupation and plundering of Shan State by the Burmese Army--breaching the promises of Panglong agreement made during independence.

In addition Ne Win's regime benefited handsomely from aid received from the west by playing the neutrality card carefully during cold war era, while developing relationships with Eastern Bloc nations and China, at the same time. The current SLORC/SPDC military regime continues to turn aid received from outside into profit for the army. According to Shelby Tucker (2001), in the eighties the United States supplied Burma with helicopters, aircrafts, pilot-training, and herbicide for eradication of opium up to the time of 1988 uprising. The Burmese Army used the herbicide to assist its partners in narcotic trade by spraying only their competitors' opium crops. They also used herbicide provided by the United States for the purpose of ethnic cleansing by poisoning the drinking water that made many hill tribe villagers violently ill.

The recent experiences from Cyclone Nargis' humanitarian aid operation suggest that given an opportunity Burmese military regime will stop at nothing to skim off profit at the expense of general public in Burma. Besides, the government soldiers in ethnic areas regularly commit various forms of vicious human rights violations including; rape, torture, extra judicial killing, forced relocation, and forced labour. The junta's army is notorious for recruiting child soldiers. To stop the military's violence in Burma and other countries, the Amnesty International is advocating for a total ban on illegal arms sales.

These are difficult days for all Burmese democracy advocates inside Burma. Prominent political leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi continue to suffer neglect and abuse behind locked doors. Brave student leaders are in prison and subject to maltreatment of various kinds. The former United Nations special rapporteur Pinheiro recently commented that it is very important to stop pursuing the junta's "road map to a consolidation of the military regime" in place of democracy in Burma. At present, Burmese opposition groups in exile, including the NCUB, Members of Parliamentary Union (MPU), and International Burmese Monks Organization or Sasana Moli have submitted a petition challenging the credentials of the Burmese junta at the United Nations which will be discussed by the UN Credentials Committee.

Meanwhile the ethnic nationalities have been carefully studying various forms of democratic systems that will safe guard their rights. The Karens' tragedy that began after being left out of Burma's constitutional process at independence, and the Shans' and other natives' grievances from the loss of rights promised under Panglong agreement, will have to be sorted out. Nothing is final yet, but based on their past experiences under both democracy and authoritarianism, ethnic politicians have indicated their willingness to compromise; for example--to give up the right of secession-- in exchange for a guaranteed protection for ethnic rights of self determination, under a democratic federal system.

Dent (2004) wrote that, in Burma, the threat of a death sentence hangs over any group which seeks to ally the minority peoples with the Burmese NLD resistance. For this reason the imprisoned ethnic political leaders like Khun Htun Oo and others are being severely punished by the military junta. And the assassination of Pado Mahn Sha last February was also possibly motivated by his potential to bring together different political factions and ethnic rebels for a united opposition to the junta's solo-party constitutional referendum in May.

But to bring everyone including the military together now, leaders from powerful nations such as the United States will need to intervene. Since companies doing business in oil, gas, and other natural products with the military junta are mostly from democratic nations, including the United States and U.K.; they must together find ways to help end the violent political conflicts in Burma. Most importantly the United States will need to form a strong alliance with other crucial nations to put pressure on the Burmese military until all political prisoners and ethnic nationalities are free to participate in a genuine political dialogue and meaningful national reconciliation process.

According to Martin J. Dent (2004), this is a favourable moment that must be institutionalized through serious discussion to produce a concrete agreement in Burma while both urban elites and rural ethnic rebels are struggling for liberation from a common tyranny. In addition, the United States can also apply knowledge from its own struggle against racial inequality, and lessons from tribal politics and democracy promotion in Iraq, to help Burma. In spite of on going war, economic turmoil, and debilitating hurricane, it is unlikely that United States will be overtaken as the world most powerful nation any time soon. At a time when pets in the U.S. are better protected than babies in China, the burden to lead naturally falls on the shoulder of United States and its allies. Therefore, Burmese people are anxiously waiting to see what the next U.S. president will do to help them.

During the Saffron Revolution the monk leader Ashin Gambira and over 200 monks were arrested, possibly tortured, and some were murdered. At present the military continues to arrest and torture even the family members of the monks. And recently, some soldiers entered a monastery in Burma to force young novice monks to join the army. This action has left many in Burma wondering whether the generals will stop at nothing until Buddhism is completely wiped out from Burma.

There is now a distinct possibility that Burmese military's extremism, if left undisturbed, will turn Burma into an Asian 'Middle East.' Until now the political opposition in Burma is solely committed to convincing the government and the international community to bring political change peacefully. But since last year, when unarmed and innocent people were attacked by well armed military dictators while the international community watched and did nothing, a crucial turning point has been reached in the mind of many Burmese.

Not unlike the Palestine, problems in Burma should concern everyone especially those who are profiting from Burma. Sympathy for the Burmese people is already growing among armed militants from outside, who believe that they should help the oppressed people of Burma if no one else will. Notably since the military reserves the most savage treatment for Burmese Muslims from the time of independence; and the junta also continues to practice inhumane discrimination laws against other minorities such as Hindus and Chinese in Burma as well.

A Palestinian American student recently told a friend that he saw the movie 'Rambo,' three times. Even though he was not a militant or an extremist, he felt great sympathy for the people fighting for their homeland inside Burma. According to a report, Karen rebel leaders have already refused an offer of arms from outside militant extremists. But Burma is overflowing with frustrated and angry youths who are uneducated and terribly impoverished. Their powerlessness in the hands of violent regime does not bode well for peace in Burma or the region.

Interestingly, the fortune of China, a major supporter of Burmese junta, seems to begin turning south during the past year. First there was a violent Tibetan revolt and bloody crackdown in China followed by bitter condemnations from around the world. And China's stock market began to slide steadily since September last year for the first time in its short history, and then came devastating earth quake. Today, Chinese babies are dying from a deliberate poisoning of their milk by greedy people.

May be it is time for the Burmese junta and China to apologize to the monks and make amends. It is never too late to opt for a fair and honest democracy instead of continuing with a fraudulent and greedy authoritarianism.

The monks' blood on the street of Burma has clearly drawn a line between good and evil. Surely, the freedom for peaceful monks and Burmese people is a common cause that should concern everyone. As Thomas Paine, the master of democracy said, 'the sun has never shined on a cause of greater worth.'

(May Ng is the New York regional director of Justice for Human Rights in Burma. To view her poems about Burma, please visit:

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