Where next for Burma?

10 April 2008

Carole Reckinger
Published 08 April 2008
[Source - Newstatesman]

Six months ago the world watched a courageous attempt led by Buddhist monks to replace military dictatorship with democracy. But what's the situation in Burma today?

In recent days much of the world's attention has been firmly fixed on Tibet and the plight of the Burmese people seems to have been all but forgotten.

And yet things are not improving in that country. Far from it. According to one renowned Buddhist leader, the situation is deteriorating six months on from the bloody military crackdown against the pro-democracy movement.

Many monks have been forced to cross into Thailand and Malaysia because of political persecution. There are widespread allegations of disappearances, murder and torture by the dictatorship.

All this seems to be continuing despite an announcement by the military junta that next month a national referendum will be held on a new constitution with elections following in 2010.

The state media reported that "the time has now come to change from military rule to democratic civilian rule". Considering the junta’s numerous broken promises, the announcement to restore democratic civilian rule has been at best received with scepticism.

The constitution drafting process has been carefully engineered since 1993 and unsurprisingly contains no input from the public instead being drawn up by a handpicked assembly, without the participation of the country's main democratic opposition and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

In fact draft constitution will bar her from holding government office because she was married to a foreigner. It is already clear that the constitution will ensure the military retains a stronghold on power in Burma and 25 per cent of the seats in the new parliament will be reserved for the armed forces.

Civilians will be permitted to enter parliament, but only if they show due deference to the military leaders. It furthermore allows stringent restrictions on any activities deemed "inimical to national unity" which covers a wide range of criticism and dissent.

Indeed, criticism of the draft constitution is punishable with up to 20 years behind bars, and criticising the referendum with up to three.

The question of how a free vote will take place in such a climate remains something of a riddle, and - unsurprisingly - the draft constitution has been denounced by critics as a ruse to consolidate the junta’s power. The rejection of an UN offer to send international monitors has only heightened these suspicions.

Than Shwe, Burma’s 75 year old leader, declared before an audience of diplomats that the military regime that has ruled Burma for 45 years had now "a sincere aim for developing the country without any cravings for power".

He however, made no reference to the bloody oppression his regime is still perpetrating and one wonders who he can fool with this statement.

The world still remembers when thousands of Burmese took to the streets making a variety of demands reflecting the widespread dissatisfaction with the continued military rule and the policies of the ruling State Peace and Development Council.

At least 227 distinct protests in 66 towns were staged which resulted in the deaths of officially 15 people (independent estimates state at least twice this number). Approximately 6,000 people were arrested, including as many as 1,400 monks. It is estimated that at least 700 protesters and monks remain in detention.

The ruling 'State Peace and Development Council' has denied any knowledge of the majority of those it killed during the protests. No attempts have been made to identify the dead, return the bodies to the families or even give the dead the minimum Buddhist funerary rites.

Instead, numerous testimonies have revealed a strategy in which bodies were removed systematically to cover up the extent of the violence. The Human Rights Documentation Unit of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma refers in Bullets in the Alms Bowl to persistent reports testifying to the fact that Ye Way Crematorium in North Okkalapa Township was operated from the 27th to the 30th of September by security forces to dispose most probably of the bodies of those killed.

By cracking down on monks, the junta took a calculated risk when violence against the country’s spiritual leaders was bound to inflame popular sentiments. Burmese monks are highly revered in Burmese society.

Considered to be ‘Sons of Buddha’ they represent the strongest institution in Burma after the military. Although according to the Buddhist monastic code, monks are not supposed to involve themselves in mundane politics, they have played an important social and political role in history.

Throughout British rule for instance, the so called ‘political monks’ played an important role in mobilising opposition to colonial excesses. After independence, monastic organisations pushed the new leaders to make Buddhism the state religion.

Attempts in the 1960s and 70s to bring Buddhism under tighter control was met with fierce resistance and Burma’s young and active Buddhist community of about 300,000 has had an uneasy relationship with the ruling generals.

During the 1988 democracy marches, the independent monks union emerged to support the students. The regime responded by issuing decrees to keep the monks in line and banning all independent Buddhist organizations.

Over the last two decades, the monks have observed a religious boycott of the regime and have refused alms from the military regime or simply overturned their bowls instead of collecting food and donations. By ruthlessly keeping monastic involvement in politics to a minimum since 1988, the role of the monks at the head of the recent protests took many, including the Government, by surprise.

Burma specialist Michael Charney points out that although it may appear that the State has successfully cowed the monks into submission, they have in the past survived more serious episodes of persecution.

“Given their importance in Burmese society and their resilience in past periods of political turmoil, it would be foolish to assume that they will not rebound from current setbacks,” he argues.

The authorities have resolutely tried to snuff out dissent and intelligence officers have systematically detained thousands of people believed to have participated in the protests.

Anger is still floating beneath the surface, and this is even the case for many people who were previously apolitical.

The crackdown has altered dynamics inside Burma and the country’s future is still unknown. The level of fear, but also anger is unprecedented.

More importantly, following international outrage over the brutal behaviour of the military regime, there were indications that differences have grown within the military itself.

Every government in Burma, going back to monarchical times has sought legitimacy through the Buddhist Sangha. Many within the military feel guilt-ridden and ashamed of their role in beating and killing monks.

There are no open splits yet, but there have been rumblings of mismanagement and corruption. The younger generation of generals is slowly beginning to realise change is inevitable.

When that change will actually come is harder to gauge.

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