Was what we saw last week a repeat of 1988, when Burma's advocates of democracy rose up and were brutally crushed, or is this the beginning of the end of military rule? In the past few days, the protests have continued, even if the military has kept the upper hand. But the moment must not be lost.
For decades Burma has been run by the military. In the 1960s, General Ne Win seized overall power from those who sought to build a democratic Burma. Fans of The Last King of Scotland, the biography of Idi Amin of Uganda, will understand how that regime operated. Despite a degree of international pressure and the heroic protests of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and the pro-democracy leader now under house arrest, the military rulers have pretty much had things their own way for the past 19 years.
Many of the generals who serve in the government served under Ne Win. They have little ideology, and number personal wealth accumulation among their priorities. The military has propagated a culture of greed and nepotism. People are desperate and will do anything to survive. Children have little chance of a stable upbringing, being forced into the labour market to help make ends meet. Adults move abroad when they can.
Sceptics said the military would be in charge indefinitely, that the protests of 1988 would not be repeated. Last week, they were. With 80 per cent of the population being Buddhist, the protesting monks received widespread support. That cannot be ignored internationally. Pressure from the UK and the US has been important in getting the UN's Ibrahim Gambari into the country. But, according to the Burmese junta, Britain is the second largest investor in the country. Burma Campaign UK has revealed how Britain has allowed foreign companies to use subsidiaries in its dependent territories to invest in Burma. There is a loophole here that needs closing.
The view that constructive engagement (through the Association of South East Nations, for example) with the military can bring change has achieved little, but an opportunity is presenting itself. China, which carries a lot of weight in Burma, is due to host the Olympics next year. It simply isn't good enough for the Chinese to say they don't concern themselves in the internal affairs of other countries. If that was the case, why, according to one Burmese blogger, was the Burmese army using Chinese AK-47 rifles to kill the protesters last week? Besides, recent changes in position on Darfur and North Korea have been encouraging. If China wanted to put pressure on Burma, it could do so. It would mark a remarkable change, but the international community should at least try. By threatening to boycott the Olympics, the developed countries really could make a difference. Burma has had a lot of publicity in the past few days. I ask in all humility: if the West is serious about helping my country, please will it apply what pressure it can on China and India.
Military rule in Burma cannot last forever. I was a teenager during the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and, like me, the young people who participated in the current protest will grow up with a vigorous interest in politics. Even if the military hangs on to power, the movement for democracy will live on. But why should Burma – on its knees economically – go on waiting?
The Olympics will offer a huge PR opportunity for China. Which is better: for the West to wait until things get as bad as Darfur and go along, smiling and indifferent, to the Olympics, or to apply the necessary pressure while it can? It is rare when the West can lean on China, but the country is terrified of an Olympic boycott. Is this an opportunity the West is prepared to miss?
U Myint Swe represents the Democratic Party for a New Society in Burma in the UKReuse content