musing on myanmar

Posted on October 14, 2007


Power, as Mao had said, comes from the barrel of a gun.

His classic teaching to the Chinese Communist Party has sadly proved true once again in recent days in Myanmar, where the unflinching willingness of the Burmese military junta to use force to quell protests, have stifled the moral authority wielded by the country’s revered monks.

The groundswell of dissatisfaction and despair triggered by the rise in fuel prices was the latest in a series of protests by the repressed Burmese people to make political change happen in their country, after the most notable failed attempt in 1988. But they have all been ruthlessly quashed by the Burmese junta, which was quick to use its guns and fists to ensure they remained in power.

Though countries like the US have issued heavy sanctions against the Burmese regime, the US has simply lost the moral authority and the clout to enact change in Myanmar or help bring about democracy there, no thanks to its missteps in Afganistan and Iraq.

No power survives without economic backing and the Burmese junta is able to keep its coffer filled up, thanks to the complicity of neighbors who have no qualms about trading with it.

In this, Myanmar’s rich resources of oil, gas, minerals and timber that could have been the origin of the furniture in your home, have been both a blessing and a curse.

Myanmar’s trading partners in Asia are willing to turn a blind eye to its repressive regime and pay lip service to the idea of enacting change in Myanmar, as long the lucrative trade they have going is not affected.

In this, three parties stand as the guiltiest.

China, which is Myanmar’s third largest export market and its biggest importer, has always been reluctant to meddle in the affairs of its most odious neighbors, in the hope of not having to suffer similar consequences. China has invested too much in Myanmar to allow it to fail and have lucrative contracts voided by a less friendly government that might take the generals’ places. China’s interests there include hydropower and gas-and-oil projects. Its military has also found a friendly neighbour in Myanmar’s junta, which gives China access to the Bay of Bengal, according to The Economist.

Analysts have pointed out that Thailand’s acquiescence with Myanmar’s junta come from a slightly different angle. Thailand has kept mum about its neighbor’s troubles, but the historical baggage between both countries, which have been foes and fought bloody wars for centuries, has perhaps given Thailand an unfortunate sense of schadenfreude. That and the fear of refugees from Myanmar flooding in through its borders and the supply of cheap gas piped in from Myanmar being disrupted, are more reasons for Thailand’s inertia.

The regional group, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), is equally culpable in the mess. It admitted Myanmar into its grouping a decade ago, promising to use persuasion to soften the junta. Ten years on, little has been achieved by the grouping. Instead its member countries, such as Singapore, are supplying the Burmese generals with the weapons and guns that are used on the protesters and monks.

The United Nations itself, hamstrung by Security Council member China’s reluctance to put too much pressure on Myanmar, could only come up with a feeble resolution to “strongly deplore” the recent incidents there.

The divided reaction of the world to the misery of the Burmese people could only mean that much more blood will have to be shed by its desperate people, before change can truly happen.