Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Uprising in Burma

Protest marches held by Buddhist monks in the Burmese capital, Rangoon, in recent days have inspired me to start blogging again. It seems that at long last, the international media is waking up to the situation in Burma, and beginning to take an interest that stretches farther than pensive shots of Aung Sang Suu Kyi on her front porch.

What started as a popular protest against the decision by the military junta to increase the price of fuel soon attracted the sympathy of the monks after several of them were hurt by the military during a peaceful rally, and now, they are the central feature of the ongoing demonstrations. While Burma's main ally China is thought to have been urging the junta not to engage in a full-out show of force against the monks and other protesters,today the inevitable happened and several people have been killed and many injured.

This disgusting display of violence has amazingly not dampened the protesters' spirits, at least not to the point of making them give up and go home: more rallies are expected tomorrow. Carried out in the full glare of the media, the protests are now about much more than the price of fuel. That decision was, it seems, a tipping point for all the repressed frustration and anger with the junta to come spilling out. It's not clear yet to what extent the demonstrations are being organised, and by whom, and it remains to be seen how much bigger they will get, if at all.

The uprising has had the effect of pushing an unwilling China into the spotlight. As Burma's biggest international ally, both politically and economically, most international observers are pointing the finger at Beijing as being the only voice capable of exercising any influence over the Burmese junta. In these circumstances, China is obviously hoping to avoid the situation escalating into a Tiananmen Square-style massacre. On the flipside, the prospect of a religious opposition movement forcing the government to back down on its policies is something that must fill the leaders of Communist China with dread as well.

Watching the news tonight, it turns out that China is far from being alone in having a strategic interest in Burma. Oil, as ever, plays a major role, with French company Total owning a pipeline that runs almost the length of the country into China. India and the US also have investments in Burmese energy. Which essentially means they have been tacitly suporting the regime for business reasons. Surprised? Of course not.

A good friend of mine has been based in neighbouring Thailand for the past three years, working for an excellent organisation called Burma Issues.Their purpose is to increase public awareness of the atrocities of the regime, and to seek a peaceful solution. Much of their focus is on the Karen State, where the Karenni tribespeople are constantly in hiding from the military, who have long since moved the core of their operations outside of the capital. Whether this stance now changes remains to be seen. In any case, this friend sent me an e-mail from Bangkok last week, when the demonstrations were beginning to pick up speed and the Western media was starting to take notice. At one point she asked: "How can we, as members of the international community, support them [the monks/protesters]? How can we show them that their voices are being heard? How do we show them that what is happening to them is unfair, that it should not be occuring and that they deserve the same opportunities as we do?"

The UN Security Council is meeting now to figure out how to do exactly that, but so far all it has done is to "call for restraint". Great.


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