Thursday, 4 October 2007

Free Burma!

Free Burma!

A month ago, after a small-scale revolt in Burma ostensibly over hikes in oil prices, I wrote an upbeat piece about the rise of citizen journalism in the country.

This was before the Burmese monkhood decided to take up the role of political agitator after the first wave of protests was quickly snuffed out, before government troops started barricading roads, before the major upsurge in press coverage that resulted in surreal levels of press and public interest, before the crackdown, the shooting of innocents and disappearance of thousands.

For those of us who have long supported the democracy movement in Burma, and long followed this story of ever more depressing circles, what materialised in subsequent weeks was akin to a dream – the people of Burma were standing up against tyranny, and governments, heads of state, NGOs and the public were all watching. On CNN and BBC World it was the lead story all week. Commentary from exiles, experts and brave people in Rangoon accompanied an endless litany of images of burgundy protestors padding barefoot thorough city streets.

The usual international “whimpers of dismay” that accompany most news from Burma - and that I bemoaned in my blog post - had become a deafening shriek. Front pages the world over - Time Magazine, The Economist, The Times, The New York Post. Daily protests of solidarity and lobbying of governments. “The age of impunity is over”. The revolutionary crescendo was palpable. Perhaps the interest was rooted partly in the lyricism of the powerful imagery, for some dare I say even in the drama, but there was a tangible sense that this domestic and world uprising was coalescing into a tidy conclusion: the imminent downfall of this loathsome regime.

But the world isn't tidy. One week later, and Burma is all blackout. The junta has regained its grip. Yes, UN enboy Ibrahim Gambari has met with the Generals and Aung San Suu Kyi but only after being used as propaganda tool, being sent on a sightseeing tour of remote Northern Burma. We await his report later this week, but after past visits yielded announcements that the junta was ready to “turn a new page”, I am prepared only for more false hope. On networks like the BBC, commentators in Bangkok clutch at revolutionary straws, saying the fact that Gambari met with Aung San twice - the second time after seeing the generals - is reason to be cheerful. I would laugh if this wasn’t so wrong, so depressing.

As for the protests? I am awe-inspired. It means the thirst for change is strong. However, neither religious zeal, nor the will of the people are a match for an army bloated with weaponry, all thanks to a state policy of spending more on arming itself than on public health and education combined – this despite having no external enemies. China, Thailand, Russia and India hold some sway over the generals - but why would they when lucrative energy deals and gas pipelines are either up and running or in the offing. No diplomatic disgust, no UN scolding, no ASEAN chastising, no public displays of distaste, will turn back tanks, or alter the general’s course. They will continue to act with impunity, until, I believe, death.

And, so far in the red is their karmic balancesheet, I think someone needs to bring it about. That's right, good old fashioned assassination. While inspired by the valor of Burma’s monks, the stark truth is that the saffron revolution needs to be accompanied by an army green one. Defection like that of the 42-year-old chief of military intelligence in Rangoon’s northern region (story here), provide some succor – there is dissent in the ranks, and hope of soldiers turning on the generals. That said, footage I saw this morning on BBC World, of troops encircling and kicking protestors as if a pack of rabid dogs, suggest this is unlikely.

The monks and people of Burma are emboldened to fight but need help. Now we need the soldiers to look in the mirror and ask who they are: soldiers loyal only to despicable despots? Burmese? Buddhists? Human beings?

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