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The Saffron Revolution

Could the protesters in Myanmar actually succeed in peacefully overthrowing Burma's military government? PJM Sydney editor Richard Fernandez asks whether the marching monks are in for a bloodbath or a Buddhist miracle.

by
Richard Fernandez

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September 25, 2007 - 4:48 pm

The Bangkok Pundit is one of several which has noticed the superficial resemblance between the Buddhist-monk led opposition to the regime in Myanmar and the 1986 Philippine “People’s Power” movement which toppled Ferdinand Marcos.

This reminds me of the People’s Power movement against Marcos in 1986 and the key role that senior members of the Catholic Church played. It is one thing to tell a solider to kill a civilian, but it is completely different to tell them to a monk or a nun/priest in a deeply religious country. There would also likely be a strong reaction in Thailand to the killing of any monks by the Burmese military.

Not to go over the top with analogies with the People’s Power movement, but there were two key events at that time (1) the very public defections of 2 key Marcos supporters/advisers Enrile and Ramos which weakened the powers of the state over the citizenry, and (2) the US providing Marcos with an opportunity for a clean break.

Preetam Rai at Global Voices noting that Citizens on Mars makes the same comparison to the “People’s Power” event, cites a Singaporean blogger who wants China to do what the Reagan administration urged Marcos to do. “To cut and cut clean”.

In the past twenty years ever since Tiananmen (which I remembered vividly), every such type of protest in Asia (except for Philippines and Indonesia after the Asian financial crisis) usually have ended up in bloodshed. While the military junta has already moved to put their troops on the ground, a possible bloodshed may take place soon. If that happens, a lot of innocent lives will be sacrificed in the process. So, how is the world going to do about this? While the US has already started the sanctions, it is now very interesting to watch what China is going to do about this. My feeling is that ASEAN will take an non-interventionist approach aka do nothing and let it happen which is something that I am personally against.

Both the comparisons between Burma in 2007 and the Philippines in 1986 omit one crucial point. In 1986 the Reagan administration and Paul Wolfowitz in particular realized that the rapid decline of the Soviet Union freed it from the geopolitical obligation to prop up Ferdinand Marcos. Events in Afghanistan, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself had doomed the Philippine dictator who could no longer parlay the fear of Communism into automatic support for his regime. The question is whether China is similarly quit of its obligations to the Burmese junta.

The South Asian Analysis Group sketches out the geopolitical relationship between China and Burma. Unfortunately for the Burmese people, China’s needs are based on their appetite for oil, natural resources and markets and the access Burmese infrastructure gives them in protecting it.

China was the only state that stood by Myanmar since the military took over power in 1988. Myanmar is heavily dependent on China for all its military requirements as they have been buying them at “friendship prices”. China on the other hand is wooing Myanmar both for its economic and strategic interests. To exploit the river and road networks in Myanmar, China has entered into a long term agreement with Myanmar. China is building new roads linking Myanmar with the South-West provinces, clearing the Irrawady river for bigger barges and modernising some of the ports and shipyards of Myanmar.

Chinese ambitions in the Indian ocean are evident by its help to Myanmar in modernizing its naval bases at Hanggyi, the Coco islands , Akyab and Mergui. Despite the professed economic interests of China, India believes that China (in developing Myanmar & Bangladesh) is pursuing its strategic interests to have a clear access to the Indian Ocean. This view is further strengthened by the London International Institute of Strategic Studies observation that Burma is close to key shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia and “Burma could help China to extend its military reach into a region of vital importance to Asian economies” (Asiaweek-December 21,2000)

But China may also understand that Myanmar’s military rulers have outstayed their welcome and any violent suppression of the anti-military movement may place China — and their interests in Burma — in the middle of a civil conflict. And therefore China — urged on perhaps by a Sinitic Wolfowitz — seems to be whispering “cut and cut clean”.

China has gently urged Myanmar’s military rulers to ease the strife that has seen tens of thousands take to the streets in protest, diplomats said Tuesday, even as Beijing said publicly it would stick to a hands-off approach toward its neighbor.

China has quietly shifted gears, the diplomats said, jettisoning its noninterventionist line for behind-the-scenes diplomacy. A senior Chinese official asked junta envoys this month to reconcile with opposition democratic forces. And China arranged a low-key meeting in Beijing between Myanmar and State Department envoys to discuss the release of the leading opposition figure.

The situation hangs on a knife’s edge; the next few days will show which way things will break. But one can only hope that a combination of the Burmese “People’s Power”, Western pressure and Chinese non-intervention can jointly engineer a Buddhist miracle in 2007 to match that ascribed to the Virgin Mary in the Philippines in 1986. “The old order changeth, yielding place to new, And God fulfills Himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”

Update

Sep 26, 2007 4:56 AM EDT139. The crisis continues to mount. Reuters reports shots have been fired to disperse the monks — but the firing was deliberately high — an act of brinksmanship one step short of outright suppression.

Troops fired shots over the heads of a large crowd in central Yangon on Wednesday, sending people scurrying for cover as a crackdown intensified against the biggest anti-junta protests in 20 years, a witness said. …

Many of the monks wore surgical masks to try to counteract the effects of tear gas and smoke. Others were beaten and manhandled by riot police as they were taken away from the Shwedagon, action which could inflame public anger against the generals. …

Despite the defiant column heading towards Sule, the number of monks was well below levels on Monday and Tuesday when they stretched five city blocks chanting “democracy, democracy” with no visible security presence.

Then, they defied junta warnings that military force could be used against illegal protests and a senior general telling top monks to rein in their young charges or face the consequences.

The reduction in numbers on Wednesday might be explained in part by the generals sending troops and riot police early in the morning to at least six big activist monasteries in Yangon.

In “People’s Power” situations it is the psychological momentum which counts the most. The Burmese junta looks to be timing its counterstrokes to first slow, then break the will of the resistants. Unless some dramatic defection or collapse provides fresh impetus to the protesters, the process of peaceful protest will either be smothered or risk transformation into violent confrontation. Some analysts are already calling the round for the junta.

… international officials are racing to try to ease tensions and avoid a repeat of a 1988 military crackdown that killed thousands of pro-democracy activists, most of them students. “Nobody wants to see a repeat of 1988, the generals included, so that’s why we’ve seen them showing extraordinary restraint,” said Maung Zarni, a longtime Burmese exile now working as a visiting research fellow at the University of Oxford. “But this could still get out of hand and end in tears.” …

But “what is not possible is the collapse of this militarized state,” Zarni said. “You can’t compare what is happening in Burma right now with the Orange or Velvet Revolution in Europe,” where protests movements looked for inspiration to perestroika in Russia. In Myanmar, “the state is deeply supported by China and they’re not about to launch perestroika,” he said.

One other possible weakness of the current protest movement is that it lacks the personalized target that Ferdinand Marcos and Nicolae Ceau≈üescu provided. By all accounts Senior General Than Shwe is the key figure in the Burmese junta. Yet he remains unknown to the Western public; and hence untargeted. If Western pressure were focused on individuals instead of being broadly diffused in general sanctions they might have more effect. But events in Burma seem to have surprised both the regime’s opponents and the regime itself. And both sides are scrambling to generate their forces. The next 48 hours will probably determine which direction events will take. Analysts fear a repetition of 1988. But this is no longer 1988.

Further developments

  1. SMS Text News describes the role of cell phones in coordinating the resistance.
  2. The British Conservative Party calls for global action to topple the Burmese junta
  3. The Singaporean blogosphere gets behind the resistants and is soliciting signatories for a petition.

Richard Fernandez's portal is at Wretchard.com.
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