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The Last Stretch for Myanmar?

Updated On: Sep 25, 2007

Protests in Myanmar continue, led by the monks and “cheered” by the people.

However, something politically significant and symbolic has happened over the weekend. Aung San Suu Kyi, who has not been seen in public for the past four years, met with the protesting monks on Saturday (22 September).  The monks by linking their cause to Aung San Suu Kyi would put even more pressure on the military junta.  Security was stepped up on both ends of the road leading to Suu Kyi’s house, in what appeared to be an effort to prevent a repeat of Saturday’s march. 

The protests seem to be gaining momentum with nuns joining in, numbers swelling from 20,000 to the latest reports that put it at close to 100,000.  Myanmar celebrities also participated in the march on Monday (24 September). Some of the biggest stars of stage, screen and music, including Tun Eindra Bo- Myanmar's equivalent of Angelina Jolie- have formed a “Sangkha Support Committee” and pledged to provide the monks with whatever assistance they need. (Sangkha here refers to the Buddhist monks).

Several of the regional papers seem to sense that the Myanmar military junta is on its final breath, but also warned that the junta would not give up without a fight. An opinion piece in the Bangkok Post suggested that the ‘political cauldron is now threatening to boil over.’ The Bangkok Post editorial warned that although the atmosphere in Rangoon (Yangon) is ‘charged, even exhilarating’ with ‘hope for change’, there is ‘unfortunately a very real potential for more tragedy.’  David Steinberg, a Myanmar expert at Georgetown University also warned that the military’s lack of force should not be seen as a sign of weakness, given that it remains the largest and most powerful institution in the country.

The Business World referred to the similarity between the current protests and the ‘people power’ in the Philippines in 1986 which led to the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship.

A diplomat in Yangon told The Straits Times, “Basically the country is on a downhill trajectory. Plenty of people in the military also know the economic situation is a mess. Nobody knows at what point people will say they have nothing to lose.”

In the first official reaction to the protests, the Myanmar military junta has issued a direct warning to senior Buddhist clergy that the government will take action “if the monks go against the rules and regulations in the authority of Buddhists teaching”.

Also sensing that regional and international look set to increase, the Myanmar military regime dispatched a senior diplomatic delegation to Moscow over the weekend to muster support for the Burmese military regime as it faces further pressure at the United Nations and another attempt to secure a Security Council resolution. Last time China and Russia used their vetoes to prevent it being passed.

The Secretary General's special adviser on Myanmar, Mr Ibrahim Gambari recently briefed the United Nations Security Council on Thursday (20 September). He is also due to visit Myanmar next month but has been urged by Council members to go earlier.

The Secretary-General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Ong Keng Yong, urged Myanmar officials Sunday to avoid any ‘strong action’ against the protests.  Singapore, the current ASEAN chair also said that it was monitoring the situation and “hope that the ongoing protests will be resolved in a peaceful manner”.

The Indonesian Chairman of the foreign affairs commission of the House of Representatives, Theo L Sambuaga urged the Indonesian government on Friday (21 September) to take the initiative in warning theMyanmar military junta regime to avoid taking repressive action against popular demonstrations, especially Buddhist monks.  Theo also suggested not inviting the Myanmar government representatives to the ASEAN summit to force the government to release all political prisoners and restore the democratic process.

Outside of ASEAN, Germany and France added their voices to the international chorus urging restraints, while Bush has threatened new sanctions.

However, until China and India put pressure on Myanmar, the latter is unlikely to be moved. The Indonesian government and United States have previously (during the sidelines of the APEC summit) called on both of them to use their influence to improve Myanmar’s human rights. However, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman then rebuffed the appeal. Nonetheless, there seems to be some realisation on the Chinese side that enough is enough.

Last week the Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win was summoned to meet with the senior Chinese state councillor Tang Jiaxuan in Beijing. Nyan was told in no uncertain terms that China could not tolerate an unstable Burma and feared that the protests were getting out of hand. Nyan also was strongly advised to treat the protests seriously and do nothing to endanger regional stability. The junta was told to push forward with democratic reforms in order to ensure peace and stability.

A Southeast Asian diplomat has also told the Associated Press, “The Myanmar government is tolerating the protesters and not taking any action against the monks because of pressure from China….. Beijingis to host the next summer's Olympic Games. Everyone knows that China is the major supporter of the junta so if government takes any action it will affect the image of China.”

While China was moved to express concern and has signaled that it wants a peaceful resolution to the crisis, on the contrary, the Indian government seems still reluctant to put pressure on its neighbour. The Indian Petroleum Minister, Murli Deora is leaving for a two-day visit to Myanmar on coming Sunday. The minister will meet his counterpart, Myanmar's energy minister brigadier general Lun Thi, to discuss possibilities of enhancing bilateral co-operation in hydrocarbon sector. Murli will also oversee the signing of the production sharing contracts.  This is seen as unfortunate by some since India is one of the immediate neighbours of Myanmar that is supposedly democratic.

Media reports in both Indian and Chinese media on the situation in Myanmar has been subdued and did not seem to reflect much interest and giving any hints as to what the Chinese government or the Indian public are thinking about on the growing issues at their doorsteps.  (25 September 2007)

Sources:

Myanmar threatens crackdown on monk protestors (Straits Times, 25 September 2007)

Myanmar junta not easing grip on power, say analysts (Straits Times, 24 September 2007)

10,000 Monks March Against Myanmar Generals (Reuters, 24 September 2007)

20,000 March in Myanmar Against Junta (Associated Press, 23 September 2007)

Editorial; Clerical Catalyst In Burma (Bangkok Post, 23 September 2007)

Deora's Myanmar Visit To Enhance Bilateral Cooperation (Financial Express, 23 September 2007)

Buddhist Nuns Enter Fray As Battle Lines Harden In Myanmar Protests (Associated Press, 23 September 2007)

Myanmar Junta Shows Restraint Due To China Pressure:Diplomat (Dow Jones, 23 September 2007)

Protesting Monks Greeted By Myanmar's Detained Democracy Icon Aung San Suu Kyi (22 September 2007)

Buddhist Monk Demonstrations Continue In Myanmar (Xinhua, 22 September 2007)

Syu Ki Backs Defiant Monks (The Statesman, 23 September 2007)

Monks' Marches In Yangon Makes Junta Squirm (Indo-Asia News Service, 23 September 2007)

Public Outrage Over Cost Of Living; A Social Volcano Ready To Erupt (Bangkok Post, 21 September 2007)

MP Urges RI Govt To Apply Pressure On Myanarmese Regime (Antara, 21 September 2007)

Myanmar Monks March On (Straits Times, 21 September 2007)

Mixing Religion, Politics (Jakarta post, 21 September 2007)

Rule Of Law Trouble In Burma (BusinessWorld, 21 September 2007)

Indonesia, US Urge China And India To Press Myanmar (Antara, 9 September 2007)