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Beyond Myanmar's crimson revolution

Six days after Myanmar's crimson robed monks led a struggle for political change the Myanmar authorities seem to have silenced the powerful, unarmed clergy behind the "crimson revolution". Khaki rules today. But for how long?

  • By Neena Gopal, Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 00:33 September 30, 2007
  • Gulf News

If revolutions have a colour, its definitely crimson in Myanmar, and could very well be shades of black in Pakistan. Six days after Myanmar's crimson robed monks led a struggle for political change the Myanmar authorities seem to have silenced the powerful, unarmed clergy behind the "crimson revolution". Khaki rules today. But for how long?

As the first serious challenge since 1988 to the military junta's hold on this resource-rich yet impoverished south-east Asian nation, sputters and dies in the face of brutal arrests of members of the revered Buddhist Sangha, the generals in their spanking new capital Naypyitaw deep in the jungles in the north believe they are safe, that the crimson tide has been contained. It's the men in khaki who ring the gold domed Shwedagon and Sule monasteries in the capital Rangoon (arbitrarily renamed Yangon by the military) and others in fabled Mandalay.

But while the rising international invective is no more than water off the ruling junta's back, the military's "road map to democracy" has been revealed as a mask cloaking the intrinsic venality of the regime. This is a junta that has thought nothing of imprisoning a democratically elected leader like Aun Sang Suu Kyi, the woman that South African icon Nelson Mandela describes as his only pin-up, perhaps even moving her from her home to the notorious Insein prison where thousands are being detained.

With China and Russia blocking a UN resolution condemning the crackdown and immediate neighbour Delhi blithely going ahead with an official visit by its petroleum minister to the closed nation just as protests were peaking, the ruling State Peace and Development Council and its generals led by General Than Shwe are hoping the crisis will blow over; that France and the EU, like Beijing, Moscow and Delhi will choose to safeguard their vast economic and strategic interests rather than irreparably damage relations. Even the United States' sanctions that have selectively frozen the generals' bank accounts and ban companies from doing business with Myanmar are not punitive enough.

India, beacon of democracy has been a particular disappointment, inviting Than Shwe as its honoured guest for Republic Day functions in 2005, its foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee saying "We have strategic and economic interests to protect in Burma. It is up to the Burmese people to struggle for democracy, it is their issue."

It's taken the diminutive but plucky Philippines President Gloria Arroyo to slam the junta on behalf of Asean's nine foreign ministers minus Myanmar's Nyan Win, echoing the Bush administration's ringing calls for democracy.

To India's east is restive Bangladesh where an army backed interim government has locked away the two political leaders who were their own worst enemies. India is content with the promise of a clampdown on the steady infiltration of militants into southern India. But can Delhi simply sit back instead of actively ensuring its own neighbourhood does not descend into chaos?

Securing India's strategic interests must be a multi-pronged effort that is not limited to fighting militancy and securing energy. A stable environment where human rights and democracy are respected is the only vehicle that can ensure the countries that ring India come of age and become equal partners for change.

What happens next? A UN envoy is headed to Myanmar to negotiate with the military. Negotiate? Revolutions have their seed in a cumulative anger against unpopular regimes that spill over into violence when the powerless not only find their voice but the courage to confront the men with guns. Every street demonstration has an enduring image. Remember the lone man in front of a row of tanks in Beijing's Tiananmen Sqaure? Recall Islamabad's Lal Masjid and the masked students of the madrassa with hate in their eyes? And now in Yangon, where a Japanese photographer is lying on the street shot at point blank range?

Washington's stake in Myanmar is minimal, except as a means of hitting out at a Chinese vassal that is a potential threat to vital sea lanes. Will it do more? And why does it's censure of the junta ring hollow? Contrast it with its muted criticism of the arrest of opposition activists ahead of elections in Pakistan, its resounding silence over the shock deportation of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and you will know why. Diplomats in the region have been told that Washington is deeply worried about events unfolding in Pakistan, tagging the risk factor of an implosion triggered by the military's inability to contain the Taliban-Al Qaida and the fluid yet volatile political situation as far higher than even Afghanistan and Iraq, the latter a huge worry as the involvement of Iran in its destabilisation becomes all too clear.

As Pakistan's President General Pervez Musharraf is finally delivered from the legal limbo, black coated lawyers outraged by the Supreme Court's blessing to the presidential re-election and not the emasculated political opposition are back on the streets, living up to their early promise of becoming the cataclysmic instruments of violent change. As a Myanmarese poet once wrote "In the quiet land of Burma, you can hear it in the silence of the crowd..." A silence that has been broken in Myanmar as it has in Pakistan.

Neena Gopal is an analyst on Asia.

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