Burma: Revolution Will Be Televised

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[International: Op-Ed]

The pot of revolution is boiling over in Myanmar, the Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma.

A week of mass protests has led to a situation more tense than at any time since the brutal military regime violently put down a rebellion by pro-democracy forces in 1988. The generals have shown themselves capable of murdering thousands of their own people in order to cling to power, and there is fear that history may repeat itself.

There are, however, some important differences between the 1988 rebellion and the situation today. Unlike 1988, the present protests are led not by students or politicians, but by Buddhist monks. Tens of thousands of the saffron-robed holy men have been at the forefront of the demonstrations in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), leading many thousands more of their supporters through the streets of the nation's largest city.

They have marched from the awesome, glittering Schwedagon Pagoda to the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the pro-democracy movement and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who has remained under house arrest for most of the past 18 years. Monks are revered in Burma, and they are perhaps the only group with the collective power and universal respect to challenge the military rulers.

The running junta, which The Economist magazine has appropriately labeled a “thugocracy,” also has more to fear from its neighbors than in 1988. World opinion has been squarely against Myanmar's rulers since the 1988 bloodshed, because of the disturbing lack of political freedoms, use of forced labor, conscription of child soldiers and imprisonment of the political opposition.

Transparency International rates its government as the world's most corrupt. The generals' incompetence has turned the bread basket of Southeast Asia into an economic basket case.

To punish the regime, the United States and the European Union have imposed strict economic sanctions, tightened even further in the past few days. But while diplomacy and sanctions by Western powers are perhaps helpful to some extent, Burma's rulers have shown themselves largely resistant to such tactics. It will take a stronger hand to effect any meaningful change. And despite the success of peaceful “people power” revolutions in other parts of Asia and Eastern Europe, the monks of Burma may need some additional help in their quest for freedom and the restoration of democracy.

While newly discovered deposits of oil and natural gas help support the generals, the country is also more dependent than ever on trade with its neighbors, especially China, and to a lesser extent India and other neighboring Southeast Asian states. As is the case with other loathsome regimes (North Korea, Cuba and Sudan come to mind), China's economic interests give it – for better or worse – a degree of influence that no one else has.

With the Beijing Olympics only a year away, China is perhaps more eager than before to be seen as a player on the world diplomatic stage. Moreover, it surely does not want a violent revolution on its southern doorstep, which could start the pro-democracy pot simmering in China itself, perhaps triggering a repeat of Tiananmen Square – or worse.

Information technology has dramatically improved since 1988. The tragic events of that year filtered out only piecemeal and very slowly. Today, despite severe censorship and a government crackdown on journalists, anyone brave enough to record the day's events on video and wily enough to avoid the restrictions placed on use of the Internet can immediately transmit the news around the world. Brutality that went virtually unnoticed years ago instantly appears on our televisions and computer screens today. This may be the first YouTube revolution.

In my own recent visits to Burma, where I have worked teaching physicians new techniques of eye surgery, I have been struck by the Orwellian atmosphere of the place. I have been surreptitiously followed while walking the streets of Mandalay, Myanmar's second city. I have spoken with political dissidents who have been imprisoned for their views, and were afraid to speak to me unless they were sure that military intelligence was not listening. I have seen huge billboards proclaiming: “The people's desire is to crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.”

And when the Burmese generals say “crush,” they mean it. The 1988 demonstrations resulted in some 3,000 or more civilians dead in the heart of Yangon.

Last year, the entire government relocated en masse from the longtime capital city of Yangon upcountry to a remote jungle outpost. At the time, it seemed a strange and unexplainable move. There were rumors that there was fear of a U.S. invasion; others said it was done for reasons of superstition.

The official explanation was that it would be easier to govern the sprawling country from a more central location. Unlikely, since road and air connections to the new capital are extraordinarily poor, whereas the previous capital in Yangon was at the heart of the country's commercial center. The reason now seems clear. The generals were retreating to an inland fortress, a bunker to insulate themselves and their illegitimate regime from the revolution they knew would eventually come.

The time for that revolution has arrived. Recent reports indicate that more violence may be in the offing. One can only hope that those with influence over the generals in Myanmar use that influence to minimize the bloodshed and to help restore the freedoms that the Burmese people have suffered without for so long.

Basuk is chief of ophthalmology at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla. A director of the San Diego Eye Bank, he teaches eye surgery with ORBIS, an international eye care organization dedicated to preserving and restoring sight in the developing world. The article also appeared in The San Diego Union Tribune

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