Burma: 2007 uprising and transitional challenges

Published on October 13, 2007

Burma: 2007 uprising and transitional challenges

By Nehginpao Kipgen

Asian Tribune – October 13, 2007

The biggest uprising in nearly two decades, since 1988, has once again brought Burma* into the spotlight of international politics. The 2007 uprising is the consequence and subsequence of the 1988 mass uprising.

The students’ community, under the aegis of 8888 Generation Students, led the peaceful march on August 19.

 Nehginpao Kipgen speaking at a panel discussion on “Burma: Analyzing & Understanding the Conflict” at George Mason University, Virginia, USA on October 11, 2007
Nehginpao Kipgen speaking at a panel discussion on “Burma: Analyzing & Understanding the Conflict” at George Mason University, Virginia, USA on October 11, 2007

To prevent further escalation, the military authority arrested prominent student leaders and other active pro-democracy activists.

Economic mismanagement, spiraling out of the country’s political imbroglio, was the immediate cause for this public outrage. The protests may have been suppressed with coercion, yet the spirit of people’s desire for change will persist.

Given the history of Burmese army brutality on its own people, many analysts and observers initially did not expect the sporadic demonstrations to mushroom into a large scale one, especially in the absence of student leaders. The momentum surged when the highly revered Buddhist monks and nuns joined the movement.

The protesters three basic demands were: lowering consumer prices, release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, and national reconciliation. On September 5, a peaceful demonstration of Buddhist monks in Pakokku, a town in the Magway Division, was forcibly dispersed by the government troops, injuring three monks.

The next day, in retaliation, the monks took few military officials as hostages. The monks demanded an apology from the government by giving a deadline of September 17, but the military refused to apologize.

The protests continued and spread out across the country including Rangoon, Mandalay, Pakokku and Sittwe. The largest turnout was visible in Rangoon on September 24 in which about a hundred thousand people – largely monks and nuns given protection by civilians by forming a human chain – joined the protest.

The Alliance of All Burmese Monks vowed to continue the agitation until the military dictatorship is deposed. This was a further step taken by the monks from its previous demand for apology from the military.

The brutal crackdown began on September 26 when soldiers rained down on protesters with bullets, batons and teargas. It continued through the night and to the next day. The state media reported that 10 people were killed including a Japanese photographer Kenji Nagai. Unconfirmed sources, however, have reported that about two hundred people have been killed.

In a closed society like Burma, the accurate number of deaths might never be known as it happened in 1988 when at least three thousand demonstrators, mostly students, were believed to have been massacred.

Technology advancement has greatly contributed to the ongoing democratic struggle. During the 1988 uprising, not much stories and activism inside were seen by the outside world. There were also lesser Burmese democracy activists around the world.

The 2007 uprising was watched by the whole world; more importantly, the political turmoil coincided with the 62nd United Nations General Assembly session, attended by world leaders. Indeed, there has never been in history when the situation in Burma has gotten such incredible world’s attention.

Thousands of Burmese people and supporters around the world have shown their solidarity, and simultaneously appealed for greater intervention by the international community. Political developments at international arena have impacts on activities inside Burma and vice versa.

After mass arrest and brutal crackdown, the 2007 uprising has apparently ended. Looking at the history of Burma as we analyze the current precarious atmosphere has given us some strategies on how to push forward the democratization process.

In less than three weeks time, the UN Security Council has discussed the Burma situation four times – September 20 and 26 and October 5 and 8. The council released a statement today deploring the use of violence against peaceful demonstrators and urged for genuine dialogue.

On October 4, Burma’s state television MRTV broadcast that Senior General Than Shwe was willing to talk with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi under certain conditions. Though this could be construed as a gesture of buying time on the part of Than Shwe, it is an interesting development from UN Secretary General special envoy Ibrahim Gambari’s four-day (September 29 to October 2) visit to the country.

Subsequently, the United States Acting Ambassador to Burma Shari Villarosa was summoned to Nay Pi Taw, the remote administrative capital, for talks with the State Peace and Development Council Deputy Foreign Minister Maung Myint. Details of the talk have not been disclosed, but it was said to be not productive.

In yet another development on October 7, the military announced the appointment of its Deputy Labor Minister to the post of liaison officer. If accepted by all parties, the minister will coordinate talks between the military, Aung San Suu Kyi led opposition and the United Nations.

If Aung San Suu Kyi is freed from house arrest and allowed to consult her own National League for Democracy party leaders and leaders of ethnic minority groups, talks could become an important step toward a national reconciliation. In the process, compromises have to be made by all participating parties at some point.

Although not overtly expressed, the army generals are believed to have been worried about their own safety after power transfer to a civilian government. The military may ask the opposition or mediator or both for some sort of immunity. Should this come to pass, serious consideration needs to be given.

Moreover, given the ethno-political nature of conflicts in Burma since the country’s independence, ethnic nationalities, other than the Burmans, would also like to voice their concerns and advocate for tripartite talks – military, 1990 election winning parties led by Aung San Suu Kyi and minority ethnic groups – as endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly since 1994.

For any negotiated settlement to be reached in Burma, the role of a mediator is perceived to be crucial. In this context, the mission of the good offices of the United Nations Secretary General is largely welcome and supported by all parties. UN Special envoy Gambari is again expected to visit Burma sometime in November.

If the United Nations engagement does not bring the country toward reconciliation, other alternatives should also be available on the table. One among them would be the United States taking the lead in engaging with Burma, similar to the six party talks on North Korean nuclear issue.

Six party talks involving the United States, European Union, ASEAN, China, India, and Burma could break the iceberg of decades’ old political crisis. Due to geographical proximity, enormous economic and diplomatic influence over Burma, China’s participation is pivotal.

Given the adamant stance of China on the ground that Burma’s problems is an internal matter and does not constitute a threat to international peace and security, any pragmatic action from the UN Security Council is unlikely to emerge in the near future. P5 affirmative vote or the non-use of veto power can make the Security Council an effective channel to solve conflicts in Burma.

A change from within the country is more likely if there develops an open split within the ranks and files in the military. Civil disobedience or non-cooperation movement is one other effective political tool the people of Burma has.

Nehginpao Kipgen is the General Secretary of US-based Kuki International Forum and a researcher o­n the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004).

* Burma is the 40th largest country in the world and the largest in mainland Southeast Asia with a total area of 261,969 square miles (678,500 square kilometers) somewhat smaller than the size of Texas state here in the United States.

Note: This paper was presented at a panel discussion on “Burma: Analyzing & Understanding the Conflict” at George Mason University, Virginia, USA on October 11, 2007.