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    Southeast Asia
     Mar 10, 2011


COMMENT
People power in waiting in Myanmar
By Aung Din

Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has stepped down. Could Myanmar's long serving military dictator General Than Shwe be next?

The people of Egypt successfully toppled Mubarak's authoritarian regime of 30 years in a mere 18 days of peaceful demonstrations. Emboldened by the success of the popular uprising in Egypt, millions of people across the Middle East and North Africa, including in Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain, Iran, Oman and Jordan, have taken to the streets in attempts to reform their countries' political systems. The seeds of democracy are spreading across the Arab World; the fourth great wave of

 
democratization has begun in earnest.

As international attention focuses on the surprising momentum and magnitude of the peoples' power movements across the Arab World, many now wonder whether the trend will spread to Asia and in particular if people of Myanmar, also known as Burma, will once again rise up against the dictatorial military regime that under different leaders has ruled the Southeast Asian country with an iron fist since 1962.

There are several similarities between Egypt's recent and Myanmar's past uprisings. One is the democratic contagion effect. The success of Tunisia's popular uprising in January this year inspired their neighbors in Egypt to follow suit.

Similarly, in 1988, empowered by the popular uprising that overthrew then Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, the people of Myanmar took to the streets in their millions to bring down their own military dictator, General Ne Win. Both revolts were sparked by state violence. In Egypt the killing of 28-year-old Khaled Said by corrupt police was a revolution ignition point; in Myanmar the brutal killing of students by the regime's riot police sparked the 1988 uprising.

At the same time, there are several stark differences. In particular, Myanmar lacks an independent media to check and balance the regime's abuse of power. Unlike in Egypt, where international media such as al-Jazeera and CNN covered the events as they unfolded, the military's brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters in 1988 went largely unnoticed.

Social media tools and comprehensive coverage by international media collectively applied sustained pressure on the Mubarak regime until cracked. Citizen journalist coverage disseminated over the Internet of the military's crackdown on the 2007 Buddhist monk-led uprising, known around the world as the "Saffron" revolution, failed to yield the same result.

Time and time again, the people of Myanmar have expressed their desire to live free from oppression and fear. And time and time again, the United Nations has failed to intervene to put an end to the Myanmar regime's reign of terror. But concerned people now wonder with the international support, including in the United States, given to many of the Arab nation revolts in the name of democracy whether the time is right for another popular uprising in Myanmar.

New democratic tools
There are many reasons to believe the next time could be different in Myanmar. As in many other countries, social media tools such as Twitter, Facebook, and SMS text messaging could play an important role in coordinating among organizers, bloggers, activists and artists to recruit people to the streets in a relatively short time.

Widely available cell phones and digital cameras would help citizen journalists to record unfolding events in the country and report to the outside world via the Internet, as they did in covering the 2007 "Saffron" revolution. That coverage would keep the international community informed and mount pressure on the regime when it inevitably struck back through use of lethal force.

Not a day goes by in Myanmar where the people do not defy the regime. Tens of thousands of fallen heroes, thousands of political prisoners, hundreds of thousands of refugees, and millions of broken families have already proved the people of Myanmar's commitment towards and yearning for democracy. They are up to date and inspired by the developments in Egypt and the Arab World through international radio broadcasts from the BBC, Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and Democratic Voice of Burma.

Some are already bidding to launch a parallel peoples' power movement, as seen over the recently created Facebook page entitled "Just Do It against Military Dictatorship". The page now has more than one thousand members inside Myanmar who share information about revolutions in the Arab World and encourage each other through messages like "No dictator can resist a popular movement, we know". There are an estimated 300,000 people who have regular access to the Internet in Myanmar, which is tightly censored by the regime.

Myanmar's generals are experienced in manipulating the international community.

In recent years, they have succeeded in circumventing international denunciation by hiding behind the protective powers of China, Russia, and India - all of which aim to extract and exploit energy and natural resources in Myanmar. They are also able to utilize their membership in some international organizations, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Non-Aligned Movement, to render United Nations' resolutions toothless and ineffective. Any attempt by the United States to gain influence over Myanmar's generals will only aid them in hedging their bets between international powers. A direct US intervention would likely undermine the democracy movement, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

The United Nations Human Rights Council recently decided to form and dispatch a Commission of Inquiry to Libya to investigate human rights violations. This move is long overdue and came too late. Like General Than Shwe of Myanmar, Muammar Gaddafi has brutalized the Libyan people for decades. If the UN had established such an investigative mechanism earlier, it might have been able to stop the killing of innocent civilians by the Libyan military and its mercenaries.

Activists have long advocated for the UN to set up a commission of Inquiry into Myanmar's rights abuses as a way to protect democracy activists and ethnic minorities and prevent further killing. Such an international effort would have warned Myanmar's generals that, although they are fully protected by their domestic legal system, they could be held accountable in international courts for crimes they have committed.

Record of abuse
The regime's abuses, meanwhile, continue unabated. On February 28, 2011, nearly 84,000 ethnic people from Karen State in eastern Myanmar sent an appeal letter to UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon urging him to help stop human rights violations in their areas.

These civilians, aged 16 to 103, have been subjected to abuses including forced labor, looting, extortion, destruction of homes, villages, crops and fields, forced relocation, extrajudicial killing, beating, torture and the systematic rape of women and children by the Myanmar army for decades. More than 3,600 villages have been destroyed in eastern Myanmar in the past 15 years, an average of four every week.

Physicians for Human Rights, an international non-governmental organization, released a research paper on human-rights violations in Myanmar's Chin State entitled "Life Under the Junta". The report found 2,951 cases of abuse by the military regime over a one year period. Of the 621 household interviewed, 91.9% reported cases of forced labor. Many were forced to carry military supplies and ammunition, sweep for landmines, and build roads and buildings. Religious or ethnic persecution was reported by 14.1% of respondents, 5.9% reported arbitrary arrest and detention, 4.8% reported cases of disappearance, 3.8% reported instances of torture, 2.8% reported cases of rape, and 1% reported outright murder.

These abuses - similar to the ones cited by protesters now on the streets across the Arab world - are well-known among the Myanmar population. At the same time, the regime continues to issue threats to pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi, who was released from her last seven and a half year detention three months ago, and her recently banned party the National League for Democracy (NLD).

An article published on February 14 in the regime's mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar stated that Suu Kyi and her party could meet "tragic ends" for their support for economic sanctions from abroad. Many speculate that a major crackdown on pro-democracy activists and NLD supporters will begin soon.

While voices raised against Myanmar's military regime have been quickly and brutally repressed in the past, with the democratic momentum gathering across the Arab world, things could turn out very differently the next time the country's oppressed people rise up and cry out for democracy.

Aung Din served over four years in prison in Myanmar as a political prisoner. He is now the executive director of the Washington DC-based US Campaign for Burma.

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