Pascal Khoo-Thwe: The West must confront Burma's supporters


The keepers of the soul of Burma – the Buddhist monks – have risen up for the nation by staging peaceful demonstrations in Rangoon and other major cities at a time when the ruling junta appears to be on top. Not long ago, no one dared to think that the thoroughly cowed people of Burma would have the courage to defy the military authority even by means of a smirk.

But it has happened again like it did in 1988 when the people of Burma showed their displeasure at the ruling power with nationwide protests and paid for it with their lives when thousands were killed as a result of the uprising. The situation in the country didn't change, and on this occasion the success or failure of the protests will depend on how well-organised and determined the monks are.

As soon as reports came out of the UN Security Council's decision not to take any direct action but just to urge the junta restraints against the protesters , a friend of mine phoned me from Burma to express his feeling. "We don't want our country to become another Rwanda," he said with a deep sigh. It seems that his fear might yet come true, as reports of violence, injuries and deaths are continuing to emerge as I write this. "I hope I am still alive by this evening," my friend said before he put the phone down, and I could hear the determination in his voice.

The top generals will cling on to their fantasy of a peaceful Burma under military rule and they will do everything in their power to crush anyone they deem harmful to their role as the guardians of the nation. For them it is a fight for ideology as much as survival. The head-on collision with the monks and the people could end up in a protracted war of hatred with no clear winners.

The situation has been made worse by the unscrupulous actions of neighbouring countries like China, India and Thailand. They have been supporting the brutal regime by supplying them with weapons and technologies for procuring raw materials and natural resources from Burma. So the problems go beyond the question of whether tourists should go to Burma, or whether companies should invest in it. The question that really needs to be asked is whether western nations have the guts to tell China and India not to support a regime that has no intention of helping its people.

No Burmese ruler will act for the good of his people unless he feels that his own existence is under pressure or threat from outside. It is not enough for the United States alone to impose sanctions on the generals nor for European nations to "consult" with their colleagues. Solid action is now needed if further bloodshed and long-tern political problems are to be avoided.

Another reason the Burmese generals have delayed their violent crackdowns is the concerns expressed from Beijing, as evidenced by the visit of one of the ministers of the junta to China as soon as the protests started a couple of weeks ago. It seems that China is particularly keen that nothing untoward happens in its neighbouring countries while it is trying to host the 2008 Olympics. Whether we Burmese like it or not, in terms of global politics, Burma has become a part of China, and our future and fate hang on decisions and actions taken in Beijing.

But the generals are not likely to care what the outside world thinks in any case, and the current crisis could turn nastier with their usual use of devious tactics to stay in power at all cost. In this situation, it is important that the international community, especially the United Nations, keeps a close eye on developments and prepares itself to provide pragmatic help and intervene through whatever means it can. What it must not do is to get bogged down again on the question of whether the junta should be isolated or not, but concentrate on how to remove a regime that has been of no use to humanity.

Meanwhile, opposition groups inside and outside Burma need to concentrate their efforts on the rebuilding process, rather than talking about revenge or retaliation. More important, armed ethnic groups – the so-called "peace" groups which signed ceasefire agreements with the junta – must find a way to communicate with their political counterparts despite various restrictions on them, in order to prevent chaos that would follow if the top generals unleashed their evil plans in a do-or-die situation.

Whatever is going to happen in the coming days, bloodshed or a peaceful solution to the crisis, we all need to keep our heads cool and our heart in the right place to help the people who are risking their lives for freedom. We need to be afraid with our eyes open in order to solve or avoid the problems one by one.

Pascal Khoo-Thwe took part in the 1988 uprising as a student leader. He is the author of 'From the Land of Green Ghosts'

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