Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The sky is not blue in Burma

By David Calleja
Online Opinion

The recent decision by the Burmese military to release 6,313 prisoners indicates that the rulers are well-versed in undertaking public relations exercises ahead of proposed multi-party elections in 2010.

Some parties see this as a positive first step in the seven-stage roadmap to democracy; a sign that the junta may be ready to enter the international community after years of isolation. But Burma has been at war for more than six decades. The military uses armed conflict, rape, torture and displacement of civilians. Of the inmates that have been released, 24 are deemed political prisoners.

According to the Burma Campaign UK, there are more than 2,100 political prisoners still behind bars. As for a people’s power movement, an anonymous Burmese blogger on the BBC website remarked that the junta’s way of dealing with such a concept is to “simply shoot everybody”.

The military authorities are grinning because they have tossed a bone to the outside world with the promise of an election next year, and in doing so, have driven a wedge in the international community who are divided over what to make of this announcement.

The United Nations and the Japanese government adopt a policy of dialogue and diplomacy with the junta, and see this as a breakthrough. However, history has shown us that military authorities in power are unlikely to give up authority so easily. The Burmese army’s condition is the insistence that will play a powerful role in the parliamentary make-up and retain 25 per cent of seats in parliament.

Naturally, the most famous political prisoner in Burma and around the world, leader of the National League for Democracy, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, continues to remain under house arrest. Her party’s deputy leader, 82-year-old Tin Oo, also remains confined to his home in detention. The United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has repeatedly called for the unconditional and immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet the UN’s Special Envoy for Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, has failed to win any concessions. It is little wonder that Aung San Suu Kyi is tired of appearing for the media when it is clear that the Burmese leadership will not change their hardline stance.

The Burmese military are the only party interested in seeing Gambari on a regular basis because they know it serves as a distraction from their failure to assist the victims of Cyclone Nargis and for the endless and well-documented abuses against its own people, especially ethnic minorities.

In a response to the Asian edition of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial criticising the value of Gambari’s visits published on August 28, 2008, the Consulate-General of Burma (Myanmar) to Hong Kong defended Gambari by praising the mutual respect shown between the junta and the Special Envoy for Burma. At the same time, the unnamed official has accused critics of failing to listen to the Burmese government’s side of the story, saying that if “such people wear dark glasses, you cannot see the truth”.

When the 2007 Saffron Revolution commenced, the junta stopped the flow of information to the outside world by blocking 85 per cent of e-mails and blocked foreign news agencies from reporting within Burma's borders, thus restricting live streaming of events.

One courageous individual, Nay Phone Latt, who streamed a rare glimpse into the actions of the armed forces was arrested and tried without legal representation. He was found guilty of breaching both the Electronics Act and the Video Act and sentenced to 20 years in jail. One year later, Burmese publications in exile such as The Irrawaddy and Democratic Voice for Burma were shut down by the junta.

Too many nations have forgotten that the Burmese military brutally crushed unarmed monks and civilians showing their support, resulting in the death of hundreds of protestors and detention of thousands more.

The events of 2007 must now seem distant with international media attention shifting to cover the global financial crisis. Each country is implementing measures to protect their economies. United States President Barack Obama will obviously review policy towards Burma, but his priorities are stopping the war in Afghanistan, and improving diplomatic relations with Iran, North Korea, and Russia. Now is the time for the rest of the world to go beyond the stages of talking tough.

The United Kingdom, the European Union, Canada, the members of ASEAN and Australia need to take a more proactive role. Burma's allies, notably China and India, need to stop insisting that private diplomacy will work in convincing the regime to step down and change their ways. The proposed elections in Burma will allow the military to commit more crimes against its own population and give General Than Shwe a chance to make an honourable exit.

Under the present climate, no polls will be free or fair. The National League for Democracy will be barred from fielding candidates, and restrictions on voting will be implemented to prevent an overwhelming protest vote against the junta’s candidates by the rural population who have suffered the most.

The Burmese government also has the option of cancelling the election if they suspect a perceived or genuine threat to their power is possible by citing security concerns in the country’s best interests. This ploy will be undoubtedly described as “despicable” and “unacceptable”, but for all of the colourful adjectives that world leaders and the United Nations are capable of using, the military junta will not listen nor care.

The Burmese government’s ignorance for the plight of its own people is best demonstrated in the closing line of a letter defending Ibrahim Gambari’s visits: “The sky is always blue in the Union of Myanmar.”

Their version of reality cannot be any further from the truth. For far too long now, the military dictatorship of Burma has held a gun to the heads of their own people and left bloodstains and bullets as calling cards. The innocent people of Burma cannot afford to be left vulnerable in the dark anymore.

About the Author

David Calleja is a freelance writer who is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy Journal and Hack Writers. In 2008, he worked as a teacher and soccer coach in the Internally Displaced Persons camp based in Loi Tailang, Shan State, Burma. His writing focuses on human interest stories in Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. David has also worked as an English teacher in South Korea, China, Thailand and Cambodia. His video depicting the lives of families living on the grounds of Steung Meanchey Waste Dump in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, A Garbage Diet, can be viewed here.

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