Sunday, August 26, 2007

Oppression in Burma Neglected in ASEAN

The whole world has condemned the suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Burma in the past week. The detention of leaders of the 88 Generation Students by the military regime in Rangoon has also been taken up by the United Nations, European Union and the international community. There have been protests before in Burma, mostly small and sporadic since 1988, but this time around the protests were bigger and prolonged. It was a watershed in Burmese politics and could mark the beginning of the end of one of the world's rogue regimes.

The Rangoon regime is used to suppressing its own people without worrying about the consequences. After all, why should they? They have everything under control with their armed security forces and thousands-strong civilian gang - the Union Solidarity and Development Association - whose members are on the streets ready to beat up democracy-loving people and ordinary civilians at a moment's notice. For decades, the Burmese students and people have wanted to express what went wrong in their society. They could not do it. When the paranoid junta leaders decided to move from Rangoon to Naypyidaw in 2005, the Burmese people were shocked.

They knew the junta leaders had spent a fortune to create the Disneyland-like new capital. And to further burden the already tight budget, the junta has grand plans to build a cyber city and, of course, a nuclear plant. But the junta leaders do not have the kind of money they claim to have. Revenues from gas and oil are not expected to come in abundantly until 2010. What else was left but to end fuel subsidies and further squeeze the ordinary people.

So when the junta decided to increase fuel prices, the Burmese people decided they had had enough. Most of the people earn meagre incomes to live from day to day. With the rise in fuel prices, the cost of food and other necessities also shoot skyward. The prices of eggs and garlic have increased by 90 per cent, meat by over 50 per cent. It means the people have to spend at least 90 per cent of their income on food. How can they survive like that? Ending the fuel subsidies will not bring the junta much revenue anyway.

The International Monetary Fund has been advising the junta on how to modernise its economic management and tax collection system. In normal circumstances, the junta's latest move would have been considered sound economic policy. But given the long-standing suppression and suffering of the Burmese people, the fuel-price hike represents a small window to speak out. It could be the straw that broke the camel's back. The students and the public sensed correctly that the time had come to show solidarity on the streets. If there was a lesson learned from the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, it was that one must not look down on the suppressed and hopeless Burmese people because they can rise up. The junta's spell was broken.

As usual, Asean has been dead silent. Senior Asean officials are meeting now in Singapore to finalise the draft of the Asean Charter, a document meant to strengthen the grouping. But it is hypocritical for Asean to talk about making Asean one community or one family. Since its admission in 1997, Asean has had traumatic dealings with Burma. The Burmese regime has never behaved in a way that would enhance a close-knit Asean family. The junta does not care a hoot what Asean thinks. When Thailand had a coup last year, quite a few Asean leaders had strong views on Thai democracy. When it comes to Burma, the leaders are more willing to keep their mouths sealed. It would not be wrong to say that Asean has been always more sympathetic to the Burmese junta. Obviously, a future collapse of the junta would impact on the grouping's democratic space and openness. Asean must have a clear awareness of Burma's situation. The group can no longer sit idle. How can Asean be people-oriented and have a charter that is people-centred if the current suppression of the Burmese people continues without the grouping voicing strong concern?

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