Thursday, September 27, 2007

Will the Burmese suffer the same fate at the hands of the military as 20 years ago?

Joshua Kurlantzick has this observation in the New Republic:
For days, thousands of average Burmese and respected Buddhist monks parade through the streets of Burmese cities, calling for democracy and picking up supporters as they march. The protests have a kind of festive atmosphere. Crowds of young men in baseball caps and elderly Burmese in traditional sarongs cheer the monks from the rooftops and wave hand-lettered banners in Burmese and English. As the demonstrators walk, sometimes linking arms, the feared Burmese troops, who have run the country since the 1960s, stand aside, letting them pass.

This scene could describe Burma today, where a major protest movement against the military junta appears to be gathering force, culminating in this week's 100,000-strong demonstrations in Rangoon, Burma's largest city. But they also could describe Burma of two decades ago, when even larger demonstrations rocked the country during the summer of 1988. Unfortunately, today's protests are reminiscent in another way as well. In the late 1980s, many average Burmese took heart from foreign media interest in their struggle, and thought foreign countries would come to their aid. But outside powers did little, and after weeks of just watching the protests the army cracked down. Are contemporary Burmese soon to suffer the same fate?
The protests in 1988 over the mismanagement of the government and economy did lead to democratic elections in 1990. The National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won 60% of the vote and 80% of the seats in parliament. The military backed National Unity Party won on 2% of the seats in parliament. The military annulled the results of the election and the military dictatorship re-imposed its iron rule. There was little notice around the world.

But there have been changes around the world in communications. Today the internet makes specialized online journals such as Burma Digest or Irrawaddy are available to the general public around the world. And it’s not only journals but blogs such as Ko Htike, Justice and Injustice, Mogok Media and MoeMaKa Media – online web logs by ordinary citizens who, at no small risk to themselves, publish photographs and tell stories of what is going on inside this bizarre police state the regular media do not have access to. There are even videos available on YouTube by activists and ordinary citizens. According to Der Spiegel:
When the junta murdered more than 3,000 pro-democracy activists in 1988, it hardly registered outside the country at first. Now the mass protests are being closely followed. Aung Zaw, editor of Irrawaddy, a news magazine for expatriate Burmese in Thailand, told AP: "The world doesn't know where Burma is. Now they see images about the situation and want to know more. That's a huge difference from 1988." The hundreds of bloggers and people sending information are risking severe punishment. Anyone who has a computer and does not use the state Internet provider can be imprisoned for up to 15 years. But the bloggers seem to have managed to circumvent the censorship with relative ease.
So the real question is will contemporary Burmese suffer the same fate as their brethren 20 years ago now that the world community has been given fair notice?

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