Friday, November 28, 2008

The Bell Tolls for Burma

The Irrawaddy News

The latest insult to the intelligence of the Burmese people was the excessive sentences handed down recently to pro-democracy activists—including Buddhist monks, social workers, lawyers and women—by the Burmese military authorities under the guise of "national reconciliation" between the regime and the opposition movement.

Burma's dictator-in-chief, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, has forced the populace to accept his "seven-step road map" political process, whereby he calls the shots and locks up any opposition while at the same time saying he wants "to build a peaceful, modern and developed new democratic nation with flourishing discipline."

The response from the international community has been weak and fractious.

The United Nations General Assembly's Third Committee last week passed a resolution critical of human rights conditions in Burma. However, it was only approved by a vote of 89 in favor, 29 against and 63 abstentions after an intense round of disagreement among its members. Hardly a strong and united message.

While the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which includes Burma, has nothing to say about the recent judicial crackdown on the Burmese opposition, China and India are free to move in again and secure their business ties with the Burmese junta, exploiting both the country’s economy and its natural resources.

China recently announced that the project to build an oil and gas pipeline from Yunnan Province in southwestern China to the bay of Bengal on Burma's Arakan coast would go ahead as planned, starting in early 2009.

For its part, India won a concession for the construction and operation of a multi-modal transit and transport facility on the Kaladan River connecting the port of Sittwe, capital of Arakan State, with the Indian state of Mizoram.

Although the US and the EU countries routinely condemn the regime and maintain economic sanctions, it is clear the White House is preoccupied with the ongoing financial crisis, the transition to Barack Obama’s administration and its disastrous military action in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Some US lobbyists have suggested that the serious human rights abuses in Burma should be prioritized in Obama's foreign policy with bipartisan support from the US Congress and Senate. We shall see.

But when the political pundits can only shrug and utter comments like “Something is better than nothing,” you know Burma is facing its darkest night.

Many of them have criticized the politicking of detained NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the leaders of 88 Generation Students, calling it a "strategic failure."

Those so-called experts have also come to believe that a "space" would open up following the 2010 election and the subsequent realization of provisions under the constitution.

However, in Naypyidaw’s eyes, there isn’t even enough space in the government for the existing junta and its emerging ranks, never mind allowing civilians into the club.

Meanwhile those "pragmatics" say there are different approach between the "insiders" and "outsiders" of the country, and the exiles can only criticize but they don’t face the stark reality of daily life in the country.

Certainly the pro-democracy activists who were recently sentenced to 65 years in prison know the difference between "insiders" and "outsiders" in the struggle for liberty. They will wake up to it every day in dark, dirty cells.

In fact, there is no alternative. To break the political deadlock, we must follow the path of dialogue and compromise.

Burmese people know that the dawn of democracy is not tomorrow—in the words of UN Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana, the "restoration of democracy cannot happen overnight. It will take generations."

In today’s world, the new generation is looking toward young, energetic leaders such as US President-elect Obama. The word "change" rings out like a bell tolling hope for people around the world.

But Burma has already sacrificed generations in this struggle—young people shot in the streets, imprisoned or forced to flee the country.

Perhaps that's why Min Zeya, a leading member of the 88 Generation Students group, openly ridiculed the Burmese court when his sentenced was pronounced. “What? only 65 years?” he shouted.

The world is moving forward. It must not neglect the brave political prisoners of Burma, nor allow them to die forgotten in remote prison cells.

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