My old friend, Burmese Ambassador to Sri Lanka and University Rector Dr Htin Aung, wrote, in his A History of Burma, of The Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma. This, like all official history, contained its share of fiction, that ‘the scholars endeavoured to be objective in writing the chronicle, (but) knowing that they could not be so with the recent past, with whose sorrows their hearts were still laden, they stopped their narrative with the death of Bodawpaya’ (i.e. before the first of the three wars of British annexation).
The sorrows of Burma’s modern history under forty-three years of military rule lie heavily on its long-suffering peoples. In 1988 they revolted and the loss of life was three times greater than ten months later in China’s Tiananmen massacre. In 1990 they came out in force to give the new democracy movement, under charismatic and determined Aung San Suu Kyi, a decisive victory in Burma’s only election in forty-five years. Having suppressed that result and democracy, the junta has racked up an imposing record of crimes against humanity.
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Its violations of the whole range of human rights and detention of political prisoners have been condemned in the UN fourteen years running. It ‘holds its own people hostage’, in the words of Rajsmoor Lallah, one of the UN Special Rapporteurs on Burmese Human Rights, through pervasive surveillance, arbitrary detention, terror, torture and degrading treatment. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has just once again condemned its use of forced labour. According to the State Department, it is in the worst category for human trafficking violations (along with North Korea and Cambodia). It has conscripted 70 000 child soldiers.
Another example of its singular harshness and heartlessness towards its own most vulnerable citizens is that it spends disgracefully little on health and education, and its once admired tertiary system is a shambles. According to the UN, it spends 222 per cent more on the military than on health and education, putting it in the cellar with Syria, Oman and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. 15 per cent of children die before the age of five. Half a million, mainly young people, are HIV-positive and AIDS spreads across all its borders.
It is according to Transparency International one of the five most corrupt governments in the world.
It is widely considered to be complicit in the narcotics trade which provides most of the heroin and amphetamines on Australian streets.
Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has spent most of the last sixteen years in detention or ‘restricted residence’ as the military call it. This euphemism smacks of 1984 and would have delighted old Burma hand George Orwell. Her sixtieth birthday, on 19 June, was spent in circumstances of confinement which have never been so severe. Her name suggests she is a Tuesday’s child, which makes even more felicitous US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent reference to her ‘grace’.
In September 2002, during a year of freedom, she appealed to the world to support change:
During my travels, I have discovered that there is so much more to be done for this country than I had ever imagined. The people are desperate for change … The only thing they do not know is how they could get what they want they need help
I would like to appeal to our friends all over the world to do everything they can to ensure that we progress towards democracy.
Those who have endured a similar fate know how being a focus of international attention can provide a modicum of reassurance. When Vaclav Havel, who nominated Aung San Suu Kyi for the Nobel Prize in 1992, was imprisoned in 1977, one of his friends got out the message to his international supporters through playwright Tom Stoppard that ‘the only bad thing is to be forgotten’.
On his Forum 2000 website, Havel carries a message to Aung San Suu Kyi which cannot be delivered to her personally. It is signed by another dozen staunch supporters, including Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama (but, alas, no Australian). The Nobel Peace Laureates have their own website where support can be pledged for Aung San Suu Kyi. ASEAN Parliamentarians also have a website where they can inscribe personal messages to her. As a harbinger of what technology will make possible to penetrate a closed society, the popular music group R.E.M. beamed a song about Aung San Suu Kyi from its Dublin concert on 19 June on satellite television to an estimated two million dishes in Burma.
The junta shares the over-riding aim of its predecessor Ne Win to hang on to power. Sharing power with the democracy movement, let alone ceding it to an elected government, is out of the question. It now has a further aim, to enrich itself. It does not see that this makes it more vulnerable. Yet greed seems to have been a factor in the first split within its ranks, the purge of the No. 3 in the leadership, General Khin Nyunt, and the dreaded Military Intelligence which was his power base.
The junta is hardly likely to display grace under gathering domestic and international pressures. It may well be the first of Condi Rice’s ‘outposts of tyranny’ to crumble from within. External pressure could help the process along by questioning its legitimacy in regional and international forums.
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