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OPINION: Apt time to push for change in Myanmar

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OPINION: Apt time to push for change in Myanmar


Gen Maung Aye turned down a request for a game of billiards by Myanmar’s ruling regime’s Gen Than Shwe.

With many military officers having family members who are monks, the Myanmar military has become more divided following the brutal way demonstrating monks were treated during protests in September last year, writes AMY CHEW

IN the aftermath of Myanmar’s brutal crackdown on the country’s Buddhist monks’ peaceful demonstration last year, the ruling regime’s Gen Than Shwe called up his deputy for a regular game of billiards.

But to Than Shwe’s surprise, the country’s second-highest military officer, Gen Maung Aye, turned him down.

“Gen Maung Aye doesn’t play billiards any more with Gen Than Shwe,” Win Min, an activist with extensive contacts with the military, told the New Straits Times.

“I heard that he (Than Shwe) called up General Maung Aye and said, ‘Let’s go play billiards’, but Maung Aye refused.
“It’s like a protest to the top general,” Win Min said.

Myanmar’s military is divided and at its weakest since 1988, the last time large-scale protests erupted and ended in bloodshed, say Win Min and pro-democracy activists.

Its once fearsome military intelligence service is also diminished, following the 2004 sacking of military intelligence chief Khin Nyunt.

Khin Nyunt was viewed as a moderate who was open to working with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

For the democratic forces in Myanmar, now is the best time to regroup to push for change.

“This is a window of opportunity to exploit,” said Nyo Ohn Myint of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). “It’s the chance to regroup, reorganise another people’s power (revolt).”

The activists were in Jakarta recently to attend an international conference on Myanmar.

Throughout the 46-year rule of the military regime in one of the world’s poorest countries, dissent has always been crushed with brute force. But last September’s crackdown backfired.

When Than Shwe’s special troops beat and shot monks and raided monasteries in the capital Yangon, the brutality repulsed officers within the military itself.

U Awbata, 30, was one of the monks at the protests who managed to escape. He now lives in Sri Lanka.

“I saw three monks shot and one of them fell,” he said. “The soldiers kicked and stomped his head with their military boots and started beating him. I couldn’t do anything but cry.”

With many military officers having family members who are monks and holding them in respect, “the military has become more divided after September’s demonstrations”, said Win Min, who also lectures on Burmese affairs at Chiangmai University.

“There are many mid-level and even some high-level generals who disagree with the level of force used against the monks. The monks are revered symbols in Burma. They are at the top of our value system.”

Buddhist monks are an integral part of Burmese society, their presence as ubiquitous as the temples that dot the country’s landscape.

“Just as the monks depend on the people for their basic needs, the lay people depend on the monks for their spiritual needs,” said U Awbata.

“In the past, the people always acted on their own to demonstrate whenever they were faced with problems in their daily basic needs.

“So when the monks saw the people suffering, they took it upon themselves to act on behalf of the people because it’s our duty. We never thought the military would treat us this way.”

Maung Aye’s loyalists and other troops, unhappy with the crackdown in Yangon, responded by not shooting at the monks.

“If you look at what happened in Mandalay, the troops just surrounded the temples but they did not shoot or beat the monks. They also did not raid the monasteries, unlike in Yangon,” said Win Min.

“In Yangon, the special troops there are very close to Than Shwe.”

But even as Than Shwe might see over Maung Aye’s subtle insubordination, he has not sacked him. His deputy has many regional commanders behind him as well as the loyalty of the troops under his command.

September’s peaceful uprising took the military by surprise and exposed the weakness in its intelligence service after Khin Nyunt’s ouster.

“When the demonstrations erupted, (the junta) had no idea who the leaders were as all the informers they had planted in the monasteries were no longer working,” said Win Min.

Pro-democracy activists put the death toll of monks and other protesters at 100, with another 1,200 jailed, bringing the total number of political prisoners to 2,200.

Western sanctions have failed to prod the regime to make any changes, as investments from China, Russia, India and Asean countries help offset its economic isolation.

Pro-democracy activists have begun lobbying China to use its influence over Myanmar to bring about reform.

Nyo, an aide to Suu Kyi, recently met in Kunming with Chinese officials, who expressed a list of concerns over regime change and extending support to Suu Kyi.

As China shares a very long border with Myanmar, the Chinese are concerned Suu Kyi would allow Myanmar to fall under Western influence and allow the United States to spy on them.

“I told them that Suu Kyi is a very nationalistic person,” Nyo said.

China also worries it would lose its vast economic interests in Myanmar under a new regime.

Suu Kyi has agreed to give China special privileges for a period of time, perhaps around 10 years.

“She instructed me to work closely with China,” said Nyo. “China is very important and she is willing to assure China that no matter how Burma is transformed into a democracy, China’s interests are secure.”

China is also worried about Russia’s growing influence in Myanmar since 2000. Russia has large investments in nuclear power plants, coal mines and technical military hardware.

As the world’s major powers jostle to balance their influence in the region, time is running out for the impoverished Burmese.

“The people are in a very bad situation,” said Nyo. “Unemployment is running at around 70 per cent. People have very, very little opportunity to make money. The cost of living is very high.

“There is going to be another uprising, not because of Aung San Suu Kyi, but because the people have no tomorrow.

“We do not want to see more bloodshed, people sacrificing their lives. The alternative is for a political solution.”


Written by Lwin Aung Soe

March 25, 2008 at 2:29 pm

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