Leading article: The generals take their revenge

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The Independent Online

The woman merely applauded for around 30 seconds as marching monks passed her home during the pro-democracy protests in Burma last month. Not long afterwards, Burmese intelligence agents scrutinising photographs and video footage to identify malcontents came across her image. Soldiers visited in the night and took her away.

Details are only now emerging of the systematic ruthlessness of the crackdown which quietened the streets of Rangoon in the days after the monks marched in their tens of thousands. The holy men have been stripped and incarcerated. Prisoners are viciously beaten and raped. Others have been forced to crawl across sharp metal and glass. A member of Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party has died under interrogation.

The tentacles of the crackdown have stretched wide. The owners of computers which the military believes were used to transmit images and testimonies out of the country have been detained. So were others who had done nothing, but who were suspected of harbouring anti-government sympathies. The screams in the night keep their fellow citizens cowed and behind doors, their fear compounded by shame at their own impotence.

Yesterday Laura Bush, the wife of the US president, in an outspoken public attack, called for the removal of the brutal leader of Burma's military junta, General Than Shwe and his ageing deputies, who, she said, were "becoming obsolete". Sadly, there is nothing obsolete about the campaign of physical and psychological terror they have evidently put in place. It is as effective as such mechanisms of totalitarian control have been for regimes down the ages.

The response of the international community has been strangely muted. George Bush announced economic sanctions against Burma last month and the US Treasury Department has already frozen the assets of 14 of the military's leaders. The EU is about to do something similar. And Mrs Bush has suggested that further sanctions from Washington will be imposed in the next few days. But Burma's main trading partners are its immediate neighbours; some 74 per cent of Burmese exports go to members of the regional trading bloc which is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

That is where real change is needed. Pressure must be put upon China, India and Thailand. International disapproval may be a vague tool but it can be an effective one, as was shown by the defection of a Burmese diplomat this week who, in his resignation letter to the Burmese embassy in London, said that as a "good Buddhist" he could no longer tolerate the behaviour of his own government. The rest of the world must not tolerate it, either.

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