Friday, 8 August 2008

Burmese remain prisoners in their own country

By Michel Maas*
Radio Netherlands

The military junta in Myanmar celebrates its 20th anniversary on Friday. Four months ago, the regime survived cyclone Nargis unscathed. And it is still firmly in the saddle. Its iron grip over the Burmese people has not slackened for one second, however hard the international community tries to persuade the generals to soften their stance.

Since the cyclone devastated large parts of the country, international aid workers have not been allowed into the former Burma. The borders remain closed.

If the outside world kicks up enough fuss, a few are allowed in, but once inside the country their freedom of movement is seriously hampered. They have to work under the same strict conditions which have turned the population into prisoners in their own country for two decades.

The whole world has had to stand by and watch, completely powerless as the aid effort in the stricken area, where at least 84,000 people died, is frustrated and hindered. The generals shamelessly profit from the victims.

Aid supplies disappear and recently it was revealed that a quarter of foreign aid funds end up in the pockets of the country's leaders, who demand that the money is exchanged into the local currency Kyat - for a bogus exchange rate.

In a speech in Thailand, US President George W Bush has severely criticised the military regime in Myanmar. He said an end has to come to the 'tyranny' in former Burma. His wife Lara, a strong critic of the military junta in Thailand's neighbouring country, visited a refugee camp on Thursday with her daughter Barbara. She called on the Myanmar regime to start a dialogue with the opposition.

A popular comedian, Zarganar, who protests against the state of affairs, has been arrested and faces years in prison for "agitation". And the house arrest of the leader of the democratic movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, was recently extended in spite of protests at home and abroad.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been confined to her home for five years. In total she has spent more than twelve out of the last eighteen years under house arrest. Demonstrators who demand her freedom are taken away in lorries and disappear.

In short nothing has changed in Myanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi

1988 was also the year Aung San Suu Kyi entered the political arena. The daughter of the legendary general Aung San happened to be visiting her sick mother in Myanmar during the protests. She became involved in the demonstrations and quickly became the symbol of the democratic movement.

In elections in 1990, the democratic opposition won a landslide victory over the generals under her leadership. The junta ignored the election result and restricted Aung San Suu Kyi to her house.

In 1991, she won the Nobel Prize for Peace. But that was no reason for the generals to release her. On the contrary, as a Nobel Prize winner she is even more dangerous than she already was. That is why her house arrest was extended again on 26 May this year, while the attention of the whole world was focussed on Myanmar.

If she were free she could use the foreign media to give power to the weak opposition. And if there is one thing the generals cannot stand it is serious opposition.

On Friday, it will be twenty years ago that the current military junta was born. The regime of generals came to power after a popular uprising was brutally suppressed. The revolt followed the resignation of dictator Ne Win, also a general, who had oppressed the Burmese for decades. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to demand democracy.

The day of the largest demonstration, 8 August 1988, ended in a bloodbath. Ne Win declared a state of emergency and forbid his troops to shoot over the heads of the demonstrators. They shot into the crowd of civilians and Buddhist monks. The army says 'a few' people died, all other sources say at least 3,000 people were shot dead.

The brutal suppression of street protests in September 2007 was reminiscent of the 1988 revolt. Only this time the number of victims was lower, because the whole world was watching, via footage on the internet.

*RNW Translation (nc)

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