Burma’s ruling junta has only strengthened its hold on power in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, argues Asia analyst Joshua Kurlantzick. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the first secretary general in 44 years to visit Burma, recently pledged to help its citizens “to enjoy genuine freedom and democracy.” But the regime’s leadership, dismissed as crude and ill-educated by diplomats, has consistently out-manouevred the international community.
While the military junta’s longevity is partly explained by its success in crushing and co-opting its own people, Kurlantzick writes, it has also cleverly exploited both its neighbors’ hunger for Burma’s natural resources, including the region’s largest untapped gas fields, and its relationship with China, which provides immunity from international pressure. The generals have also benefitted, says the exile opposition Irrawaddy journal, from a fractured opposition.
Hopes that India could adopt a “middle path” between China’s unconditional support and the West’s advocacy of diplomatic isolation and sanctions, have been disappointed. Indeed, Asia’s leading democracy has been dragging its feet. India is a major arms supplier to the junta and New Delhi is “placing energy, trade and security concerns, notably over separatist insurgents in Assam state who seek refuge in Burma, before democracy promotion and human rights.” Indian foreign affairs minister, Pranab Mukherjee, became the first senior figure from a major democracy to visit Naypyitaw, the remote city that the junta declared the new capital in 2006.
The regime continues to clamp down on democracy and civil society activists. Fourteen pro-democracy activists have been put on trial for demanding the release of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on her 63rd birthday. The protesters, 13 members of the National League for Democracy and a Buddhist monk, were beaten and detained in front of NLD headquarters on June 19.
They are likely to join an estimated 1800 political prisoners, including veteran journalist and National League for Democracy member U Win Tin who this week marked 19 years behind bars. U Win Tin has won press freedom awards from UNESCO in 2001 and from Reporters Without Borders in 2006.
Yet a new generation is emerging to follow in the footsteps of pioneer democrats like U Win Tin. Blogger Nay Phone Latt has been charged with “causing public alarm” with his blog postings. Democratic Voice of Burma reports that he was charged under section 32(b) of the Video Act, section 36 of an unspecified law regulating electronic devices and section 505(b) of the penal code, which forbids the distribution of material likely to cause public alarm or incite offences against the public tranquility.
The ruling junta this week declared the NLD’s landslide victory in the 1990 elections “no longer legal”. New Light of Myanmar, the regime’s official organ, ran a feature headlined: “Goodbye, 1990 election results!” which said that a recent referendum approving a new military-backed constitution retrospectively invalidated the previous election.
The regime made the widely derided claim of a 92.48 percent victory in the poll, held in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which left 138,000 dead or missing. The referendum was one of the most grotesque events in the political history of the modern world, said Timothy Garton-Ash.
Despite the widespread hostility to the junta, which only intensified following its inept and callous response to the cyclone, it faces no serious challenge to its misrule. “In the `Saffron Revolution’ they lost their Buddhist legitimacy; with the cyclone they lost whatever concept of efficacy they had with the public,” said Burma analyst David Steinberg. But some observers hope that long term prospects for incremental change will improve in the aftermath of the disaster.
“The 500,000-strong Buddhist monkhood, the only viable national institution after the army, is regaining strength and cohesion,” reports suggest, through its role in helping cyclone survivors. The post-cyclone aid effort has also given birth to a newly burgeoning civil society, including professional guilds and charity groups, which could prefigure greater pluralism and democracy in future. “It’s been overwhelmingly impressive what local organizations, medical groups and some businessmen have done,” Ruth Bradley Jones, of the British Embassy in Rangoon, told The New York Times. “They are the true heroes of the relief effort.”