Two weeks of sustained popular protest against one of the most repressive and vicious regimes on earth have alerted the world to the terrible suffering of the Burmese people. But the fruits of this spectacular demonstration of courage have so far been depressingly meagre. The military regime has been rattled by the protests, but the generals remain in control.
The United Nations special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, was forced to wait four days before he was finally granted access to General Than Shwe and the other top generals of the so-called State Peace and Development Council yesterday. Mr Gambari has now returned to New York to report to the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon. But there are no indications that he will have anything positive to relate. The generals seem to be in no mood to make political concessions.
This is because the streets are no longer thronging with outraged crowds. The regime has felt able to scale back the curfew. A drawdown of troops from the streets of the former capital, Rangoon, has begun. But this is a fragile calm. The protests are continuing, but the participants have been made invisible. Some 4,000 monks, who have spearheaded these protests, were dragged out of their monasteries by night last week and herded into military camps. It is believed that they will soon be sent to prisons in the far north of the country. There are reports that the monks are refusing food until they are released. And a silent protest is taking place among ordinary citizens. Large numbers of Burmese are switching off their lights and turning off their television sets during nightly government newscasts.
One might have expected the international community, after its loud condemnation of the Burmese regime last week, to be alive to the ways in which these protests have shifted form. But there seems to be almost a sense of relief from western capitals now that the situation in Burma appears to have calmed and the domestic pressure to make uncomfortable decisions has subsided.
In truth, the international community has been half-hearted in its response from the start. The Indian petroleum minister was in Burma signing new oil and gas contracts at the very height of the protests. The French oil company Total rejected pressure to suspend its activities in the Yadana gas field on the grounds that other companies "less respectful of ethical issues" would fill the gap. This is a transparently self-serving argument.
Some maintain that sanctions against Burma and its leaders would be counterproductive because the country is so isolated. But it would be more accurate to say that Burma has not been nearly isolated enough. The junta's fantasy of economic autarky crumbled many years ago. The ruling elite are reliant on trade with their neighbours, particularly China and India. The failure of the international community to remove these props to the regime (even as soldiers fired on unarmed demonstrators) has been a scandal.
It is vital that the citizens of free nations keep up their demands for serious action from their governments against the Burmese junta. The generals may have managed to stifle dissent for now, but this has come at great cost to their reputation. The brutal treatment of the revered monks will have gravely undermined their authority. And the visit paid last month by the monks to the villa of the imprisoned democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, will have strengthened hers.
The streets of Burma's cities may give the impression of calm, but this is a country still in turmoil. It is the responsibility of the international community to stand in solidarity with the Burmese people through the coming storm.Reuse content