Thursday, July 30, 2009

'We All Want Democracy'

A rare glimpse of the issues affecting the lower ranks of Burma’s military, seen through the eyes of an active-duty sergeant.

WASHINGTON (RFA) -—In a rare interview, an active-duty sergeant in Burma’s military has expressed his frustration at the junta’s handling of the country’s affairs and said that this view is shared by many like him in the lower ranks of the army.

Experts agree that morale amongst rank-and-file soldiers in Burma’s army is low and may pose a threat to the military regime’s hold on power.

Elaine Pearson, Deputy Director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch in New York, said access to Burma’s military is extremely difficult and that it is unusual for soldiers to speak out in such a way.

“I guess this sergeant feels the need to speak out because things are really at an all time low in Burma,” Pearson said.

She noted that in the past two years, arrests and intimidation of political activists have intensified as the number of political prisoners has doubled.

Offices of opposition parties have been forcibly closed, while freedom of expression, assembly, and association have all been sharply curtailed, she said.

“This sham trial of Aung San Suu Kyi is just the last straw, when we didn’t think things could get any worse,” Pearson said.

“Even members of the military recognize this trial to be the complete farce that it is, and ... are not taken in by the regime’s propaganda,” she said.

Mark Palmer, Vice-Chairman of the board at Freedom House in Washington, said the soldier was likely motivated to speak because of his dissatisfaction with the difficulty of life in Burma, rampant corruption amongst officers, and his belief that most Burmese want a shift to democracy.

Palmer noted that in dozens of transitions from dictatorship to democracy the turning point comes when soldiers and police are no longer willing to open fire on nonviolent demonstrators for democracy.

“The views of this sergeant are therefore immensely important and promising,” Palmer said.

Palmer called for a “massive communications effort” to ensure that like-minded soldiers “know that they are not alone.”

He said it was necessary to show these members of the military “that the people are 'them' and not their enemies."

Palmer referred to a 2007 protest movement that ended in a bloody military crackdown, saying it is imperative to teach Burmese soldiers that "the next time civil resistance arises, they can and must refuse orders to kill innocent monks and ordinary citizens.”

The following interview was conducted with an active-duty sergeant in the Burmese military, who has asked to remain anonymous for reasons of personal safety.

RFA: What is the situation at the grassroots level of the army?

Sergeant: At the grassroots level we are facing difficulty with everything in our lives including affording food, shelter, and other things. We are experiencing financial hardship because our pay is insufficient. Our family members are being forced to work outside of the barracks in order to make ends meet.

RFA: How is the life of the military leadership?

Sergeant: The regional commanders in Rangoon often have three or four cars and three or four houses, but the rank-and-file members of the military can’t even afford a plot of land after retiring from fifty years of military service. The officers can take care of themselves without having to worry.

RFA: How are you able to survive?

Sergeant: After high school our children must take vocational classes and must go to work. Other family members do whatever they can and are often forced to sell produce in local markets to make extra money.

RFA: Does the military make use of child soldiers?

Sergeant: This does not happen in the township areas, but it occurs from time to time in the outlying regions. When an officer commands you to fill a certain quota of recruits, you are forced to obey.

RFA: What is the feeling of the rank-and-file soldiers about the government response to the Saffron Rebellion and the killing of the Sangha monks?

Sergeant: In the army there are many officers who are trying to advance their careers and commit these kinds of acts to do so, but the majority of the rank-and-file officers were saddened by this act. Many of us feel this way. We sympathize with the monks and feel that the officers who ordered this violence will someday have to pay for their actions.

RFA: There are some who hope that the army will stand with the Burmese people in the event of any political change. What is your opinion?

Sergeant: I would like to stand with the people, but the higher-ranking officers are unlikely to do so—only the rank-and-file soldiers.

RFA: What does the lower echelon of the military think about Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial?

Sergeant: Most are unhappy about it and feel that the government is making up lies about her in order to put her on trial.

RFA: What do the rank-and-file soldiers think about the legacy of General Aung San?

Sergeant: We all revere General Aung San and feel that Burma owes its independence to him. We don’t think that the daughter should have to suffer after the father’s work for the country.

RFA: Are new members of the military taught about the work that General Aung San did for the country?

Sergeant: It has been a long time since the military taught new recruits about General Aung San. These days his picture is not even allowed to be hung on the wall in military institutions.

RFA: Do the rank-and-file soldiers think democracy would help Burma?

Sergeant: Yes, we all feel it would make the country better off. We all want democracy—both the people and the soldiers.

Original reporting by Zaw Moe Kyaw for RFA’s Burmese service. Burmese service director: Nyein Shwe. Translated by Nyein Shwe. Written in English with additional reporting by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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