The 5-Minute Briefing: Unrest in Burma

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The Independent Online

What's going on in Burma?

What's going on in Burma?

A series of bomb attacks has focused attention on one of the world's most isolated countries. The ruling junta in Burma - which has been racked by civil war for the past 50 years - says 11 people were killed and 162 wounded in blasts at two supermarkets and a Thai trade fair in Rangoon at the weekend. But because of the secretive nature of the regime, it could be the real toll is much higher. No one claimed responsibility for the attacks - the worst in some years - but the junta has no shortage of enemies. Burmese leaders have blamed three ethnic rebel groups and exiled pro-democracy activists. But few of the opposition or insurgent groups would have the capacity for such co-ordinated attacks, and there is speculation the bombs may have been planted by dissident groups within the military. Two weeks ago, a bomb exploded at a market in Burma's second city, Mandalay.

Why is there unrest now?

Burmese politics have become even more murky since the purge of the former prime minister Khin Nyunt amid corruption allegations in October last year, and these latest bomb attacks came out of the blue. Since October, there has been a crackdown on military intelligence and dozens of arrests as the junta leader, General Than Shwe, seeks to consolidate his power. The military has ruled Burma, (also known as Myanmar), with a rod of iron for decades, and is accused of widespread human rights abuses. In 1990, the government suffered international opprobrium for refusing to hand over power to the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won a landslide victory.

What has happened to Aung San Suu Kyi?

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been under house arrest for much of the past 14 years, and will certainly remain there at least until her 60th birthday next month. But the junta is mainly grappling with 16 armed insurgencies outside urban areas, including separatist rebellions by the Wa minority on the Chinese border and by the ethnic Karen along the border with Thailand. Ceasefires have collapsed amid fears among some rebel groups that they could get a raw deal in the long-running National Convention which is drafting a constitution aimed at restoring democracy.

What can be done to pressure the junta?

At present, the efforts of the EU and US are aimed at preventing Burma from taking over as chairman of the regional Association of South East Asian Nations. The US and Europe are threatening to boycott Asean meetings if Burma continues to insist on becoming chairman next year. So far, the junta is sticking to its guns but there may be a compromise brokered by Thailand. The UN special envoy for Burma, Razali Ismail of Malaysia, has not been let in for more than a year. But on the international front, nobody really knows what to do next because of a lack of understanding of the issues.