Monday, October 15, 2007

Burma; The Monks' Revolution

[Just to say that these three postings today are in fact weekly briefings for my current affairs class going back to October 3rd, 2007

Burma is two thirds of a million square miles (India 3.3 million-USA is 9.4 million) and has over 51 million inhabitants, its most populous area being the valley of the river Irrawaddy. It is familiar to us in the UK as a former part of the British Empire, given its independence in 1948. It has been in the news over the past month for the spirited attempt by a Buddhist monk led movement to remove the rule of the military junta, (in power since 1991-and before that the military since 1962). This briefing provides background and analysis of these events.

Burma: History

The Mon people were the first to settle in the valley-about 900BC- and to adopt Buddhism; the Pyu speaking Tibeto-Burmans arrived about 100BC. The Mon and Pyu kingdoms competed for control of the area but the Nanzhao from neighbouring Yunnan invaded regularly around this time and eventually destroyed the Pyu kingdom. This group of incomers formed the Bagar Kingdom but in overcoming the Mon people they were attracted by their Buddhism which they went on to adopt. Magnificent temples were built around this time. In 1287 however, Kublai Khan’s Mongols invaded. It was too hot for the Mongols but the Tai Shan people who came down with them settled widely as the Bagan empire divided into small kingdoms. Eventually the minor kingdom of Taungoo achieved supremacy over both lower and upper Burma.

Europeans Arrive

By now the Portugese had made their entry, not to mention the British who shouldered aside the Portugese and defeated the Burmese in 1825 when the latter’s conquests brought them into contiguity with the British in India. In 1852 there was another Anglo-Burmese War Britain won several states from Burma as a result of these wars. After the Third Burmese War in 1885, the British united, in victory, both Lower and Upper Burma, the royal family was exiled to India and after four years the country was pacified. Burma was now administered as a single province with British India.

Colonial Rule

The British brought in Indians and Chinese who quickly displaced the indigenous ruling elite. Insurrections were frequent against British rule; especially arising from the disrespect shown to Burmese customs like removing shoes upon entering temples. In 1919 a disturbance was caused when a group of monks in Mandalay tried to eject a group of tourists from Britain who refused to remove their shoes. The leader of the monks was sentenced to life imprisonment for attempted murder.

‘Such incidents inspired the Burmese resistance to use Buddhism as a rallying point for their cause. Buddhist monks became the vanguards of the independence movement, and many died while protesting. One monk-turned-martyr was U Wisara, who died in prison after a 166-day hunger strike to protest a rule that forbade him from wearing his Buddhist robes while imprisoned. Kipling’s poem 'Mandalay’ is now all that most people in Britain remember of Burma’s difficult and often brutal colonisation.’ (Wikipedia)

In 1937 Burma became independent of India and insurgencies began the most important of which was the Burmese Independence Army(BIA) led by Aung San. He founded the Thirty Comrades who were trained in Japan. In 1941 in a house in Bangkok:

‘25 of the Thirty Comrades had their blood drawn from their arms in syringes, then poured into a silver bowl from which each of them drank - thway thauk in time-honoured Burmese military tradition - pledging "eternal loyalty" among themselves and to the cause of Burmese independence. Their average age was just 24 years.

The invading Japanese were initially successful but the British counter-attacked and retook the country assisted by the SOE and elements of the Burmese themselves. The BIA fought with the Japanese 1942-44 but switched to the Allied side in 1945.

Independence, 1948

Aung San became Chairman of the Executive Council of Burma, a kind of transitional government, but he was assassinated in July 1947 along with several of his comrades.

Modern Burma: In January 1948 Burma became independent with U Nu as its first prime minister. it did not become a member of the Commonwealth. In 1961 U Thant became Secretary General of the UN, assisted by a young Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the founding nationalist leader.

Military Rule

In 1962 General Nin We led a coup d’etat and went on to rule his military junta for the next 25 years. In 1974, during the funeral of U Thant, disturbances were suppressed without mercy. In 1988, the so-called 8888 uprising, economic in origin, saw 3000 people killed. General Saw Maung then staged a coup within the context of military rule , forming the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Martial law was declared in 1989 after widespread protests. The ‘Union of Myanmar’ replaced Burma as the official name of the country, though UK and USA refuse to recognize the name.

In 1990 the first elections in 30 years were held. The League for Democracy (NLD) won 392 out of 489 seats but its leader Aung San Suu Kyi was not allowed to come to power as the generals declared the elections void. General Than Shwe took over and has been in power since then. In 1997 the SLORC was renamed as the (Orwellian sounding) State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). In March 2006 the generals moved their capital from Yangon (Rangoon) to Naypyidaw (‘city of kings’) deep in the countryside.

Economy: During the latter stages of British rule Burma was seen as a wealthy country likely to become more so. It had plentiful supplies of oil, natural gas and teak as well as rubies, sapphires and other precious stones. However, the economic management of the nation by the generals has been a disaster with inflation running at astronomic rates of 60%. It also provides a large slice of the world’s illegal drugs including 8% of its opium. Transparency International, a corruption watchdog places Burma above only Somalia as the most corrupt country in the world. Infrastructure is appalling in the country and tourism a fraction of what it could be given the natural beauty of the place. Because of the very bad human rights record Burma is denied aid that flows to other poor countries. Burma has a GDP per person of only $1500, way down the international league.

Economic Protests: The huge hike in fuel prices in September 2007 provoked outrage among Burma’s starving population. The initial ‘Burmese way to Socialism’ policy pursued by the military after 1962 –essentially a military takeover of business- led to a drastic fall in production. The ‘rice bowl’ of the region was soon reduced to pauper status. Soldiers regularly stop farmers on their way to market to extract bribes and steal food. Starvation is greatest on the borders where the ethnic minorities live- about a third of Burma’s under - fives are ‘chronically malnourished’. On top of that the regime spends only 2% on health care and 40% on armed forces. Infectious diseases are as rife as in Africa and there is an HIV epidemic. Much labour is forced, virtually slave labour, forced by the military to supply its needs.

Small groups in early 2007 plucked up the courage to demonstrate against the bad economic management of their government but were soon picked of by government spies and secret police. Amnesty International turned a witheringly critical eye on the regime- criticism seems to have little effect on the generals who are determined to exploit their position in terms of power and material advantage.

In April and May, 2007 a number of human rights activists were arrested and others beaten by police. But this was only the prelude to what was destined to come later.

Monks’ Revolt: Anti government protests, focusing on economic conditions, began in August and soon it became clear that the monks were placing themselves at the forefront. There are 400,000 monks in Burma, all of whom command huge respect. Giving them alms is believed to be the means whereby one’s future life is guaranteed to be a happy one. Most monks serve only for a few years so many of them later become integrated into national life. Soldiers fired over the heads of demonstrating monks in early September in Pakkoku and the military then refused the clergy’s request that they apologize. This is what fired the monks’ revolt.

Thousands of monks led protests on September 18, and were joined by Buddhist nuns a few days later. On September 24, 20,000 monks and nuns led 30,000 people in a protest march from the famous golden Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, filing past the offices of the National League for Democracy. Well known comedian Zaganar and star Kyaw Thu brought food and water to the monks. On September 22, a large group of monks marched to greet and discuss with Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest since 1990.

In September also, the Buddhist monks withdrew their spiritual services from military personnel- a major statement in such a highly religious country.

These marches-much bigger than those in 1988- greatly alarmed the military who immediately accused ‘foreign meddling’ as the cause. In Rangoon, they hesitated significantly before finally using tear gas and then live ammunition. An Saung Suu Kyi was moved to the notorious Insein prison, used by the British when they were in control. Curfews were announced and monasteries surrounded. When the monks refused to stop demonstrating, monasteries were entered, monks arrested and many tortured, imprisoned or in some cases killed. The ‘tatmadaw’ (armed forces) seemed to wobble for a while but their harsh responses seemed to crush the immediate resistance out of the opposition forces. Officially only 8 people have been killed but estimates put the real figure in the hundreds or even more.

Hundreds of monks are either still in detention or have been ‘disappeared’.

Response of World Community: Most western countries reacted with horror to the actions of Than Shwe’s government but Ban Ki Moon’s visit on behalf of the UN, proved useless. The UN sought to condemn the regime but action by Russia and China prevented this. Japan made vague threats about cutting aid after the shooting of a Japanese photographer but like most ASEAN neighbours (Burma was admitted to this regional grouping in 1997), reactions were mild. The Economist notes (6/10/07) that the east has managed to fill the gap caused by the sanctions applied by western countries. China sees Burma as a vital source of natural resources, especially oil and gas, so has been careful in what it has said. It has to be said also, that neither Russia or China have particular objections to brutal repressions of internal opposition.

Having said this a more hopeful development occurred on 11th October when China made a U-turn,deciding to support the UN resolution rebuking the regime for suppressing peaceful protests and demanding the release of political prisoners. David Miliband noted the isolation this statement imposed on the generals. The US ambassador to the UN said the issue would be taken up within two weeks and further measures would ensue if the regime did not respond. Time will tell if the generals are listing but The Economist’s view(29/9/07) of the revolt is hardly sanguine:

Back in 1988, at the peak of the protests, even as soldiers were mowing down the crowds, many Burmese felt sure the rotten regime was ready to collapse under the unstoppable force of “people power”, as the Marcos regime in the Philippines had two years earlier .Even if the regime does crumble and the junta stuffs its bags with gemstones and heads for exile, Myanmar's troubles would still be daunting. Many of the ethnic minorities continue to distrust the majority “Burmans”, even including the democrats. And the NLD has been gutted by years of oppression. Miss Suu Kyi, inspiring figure though she is, is an untested leader who has perforce been woefully out of touch with events. As in 1988 and 1990 the Burmese people have shown they want to choose their own leaders. In the past they did not fully reckon on the ruthlessness of the people they were up against. One day, as with all tyrannies, Myanmar's will fall. But much blood may flow before that day dawns.

15th October, 2007


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