Edge on Disaster
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|Benedict Rogers||May 12th 2008|
Over a week since Cyclone Nargis struck Burma, the death toll is estimated to be at least 100,000—and still rising. Yet as the bodies decompose, Burma’s ruling Generals continue to refuse access to international aid workers. The limited aid supplies that have reached Burma have been seized by the military, either to distribute themselves for propaganda purposes or, according to some reports, to sell on the streets. And now the regime has taken a three-day public holiday and closed its embassies, causing another delay for international aid workers trying to find a way in to help.
Who are these Generals who are prepared to stand by and watch while thousands of their people die and more than 1.5 million are left homeless? How could they ignore the warnings they received of the cyclone’s advance? India issued 41 warnings from April 26 but the regime did nothing. Why?
The regime is the latest in a succession of military juntas which have ruled Burma since Ne Win took power in a coup in 1962. In 1990, following a mass uprising two years earlier which was violently suppressed, the military held elections. Despite the junta’s efforts to intimidate and harass voters into supporting their continued rule, the opposition’s National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi won 82 percent of the parliamentary seats. The military, however, disregarded the results, imprisoned the victors, and intensified its grip on power.
This regime, known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), consists of a cluster of Generals. The top leader, Senior General Than Shwe, in his seventies and in failing health, is reclusive and intransigent. He has refused to enter into talks with Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD, or any of the major ethnic nationalities in Burma—a call they have repeatedly made in vain. He and his colleagues are guided primarily not by any political ideology, but simply by a desperate determination to hold onto power at all costs.
There are, however, two other guiding sets of beliefs behind the regime besides simply power. The first is an extreme Burman Buddhist nationalism, expressed in a phrase which has echoes of the Nazis—“One race, one language, one religion.”
The Generals are ultra-nationalist and have a xenophobic, racist hatred of non-Burmans—within the country and abroad. That is why the regime is carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Karen, Karenni, and Shan ethnic groups in eastern Burma, and cultural genocide against the Chin people in western Burma. Ethnic groups are unable to teach or speak their own languages in government-run schools. Even ethnic groups that no longer fight armed resistance struggles, such as the Kachin and the Mon, continue to suffer forced labour, land confiscation, religious persecution, rape, and sexual violence.
The Generals are ostentatiously Buddhist—when it is politically convenient. But in truth, they manipulate the whole concept of religion, propagandistically appearing on television visiting monasteries, praying, and giving alms. Their charade convinced the new Thai Prime Minister who, following his recent visit to Burma, declared that he thought the Generals were “good Buddhists” because they “meditate.”
The regime uses its distorted, perverted form of Buddhism as a tool to suppress non-Buddhists. Christians, particularly among the Chin and Kachin, face severe restrictions and discrimination. Chin Christians have been forced at gunpoint to tear down crosses on hill-tops, and build Buddhist pagodas in their place—often contributing the costs and material for construction themselves. Children have been lured from Christian families and placed in Buddhist monasteries, where they are forced to become novice monks. Churches face serious difficulties in obtaining permission to build a new church, renovate or extend an existing church, or hold meetings other than their Sunday services. Christians are denied promotion in government service. Muslims among the Rohingya ethnic group face similar persecution—their mosques are destroyed, access to education denied and permission to marry refused.
Yet despite the Generals’ overt Buddhism, last September they did not hesitate to brutally crush protests led by tens of thousands of Buddhist monks. The military beat, arrested, jailed, tortured, and killed monks—and while the number of those killed is unknown, it is believed to have been in the hundreds.
The second guiding thought behind the regime is astrology. Than Shwe has a personal astrologer, just as Ne Win did before him. One of the reasons the regime moved the capital from Rangoon to the remote jungle location of Naypidaw was, according to speculation, that Than Shwe’s astrologers advised him to do so. In 1988, Ne Win demonetised much of the currency because his astrologers told him his lucky number was nine—and so he invalidated notes which were not multiples of nine, causing millions of people to lose savings overnight.
The Generals live in luxury while their people starve. Two years ago Than Shwe spent $300,000 on his daughter’s wedding, where wedding presents amounted to $50 million. Recent reports indicated that the regime has only put $5 million into helping the victims of the cyclone. More than $40 million has been pledged by various other countries, but the Generals are still only permitting a trickle to get through.
On May 10, the regime went ahead with a referendum on a new constitution, despite the devastation that the country was dealing with following the cyclone. The referendum was a complete sham—millions were already disenfranchised, and those who could vote were intimidated or forced into voting “yes.” In some cases, local officials even cast the ballots on behalf of voters—ensuring the result the regime desired. The constitution itself will enshrine military rule. The military will hold 25 percent of the parliamentary seats, but its proxy parties will doubtless contest elections and probably rig them to win. According to the constitution, the President must be someone with military experience, who has not been married to a foreigner, and does not have children who have foreign citizenship. On all three counts, Aung San Suu Kyi—whose husband was British—is excluded.
The regime is guilty of every possible human rights violation, amounting to crimes against humanity, and possibly a case of genocide. The Generals have presided over campaigns involving the widespread, systematic use of rape as a weapon of war, forced labour, forced relocation, and the destruction of over 3,200 villages in eastern Burma since 1996. Over a million people are internally displaced as a result of military offensives against civilians. And all this was going on before Cyclone Nargis. This is a regime which has only one care—self-preservation and control—and as long as they perceive an international presence in Burma as a threat, they will continue to refuse access and manipulate aid.
Benedict Rogers is the author of A Land Without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma's Karen People (Monarch, 2004), and has visited Burma and its borderlands more than 20 times. He also serves as Deputy Chairman of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.