Sun 30 Sep 2007
Filed under: International,News
Watching soldiers firing their guns and beating die-hard protesters with clubs in the streets of Yangon, a distraught man shouted, “Bloodbath again! Bloodbath again! Why don’t the Americans come and help us?”
It was a familiar plea for intervention by the outside world, heard every time the pro-democracy movement has dared stand up against Myanmar’s 45 years of harsh military rule, only to be crushed.
Some now battling the regime in bloody, month-long protests still hope such help even in the form of U.S. bombing may arrive. But others tell reporters they’re resigned to a repeat of the 1988 uprising when the world community stood by as thousands were gunned down on the same Yangon streets.
This week’s crackdown on the demonstrators, dramatized by mass arrests, killings and beatings, is triggering an unprecedented verbal flaying of Myanmar’s generals from almost every corner of the world even some criticism from no. 1 ally China.
But little else that might stay the junta’s heavy hand in the foreseeable future.
The United States, which exercises meager leverage, froze any assets that 14 Myanmar leaders may have in U.S. financial institutions and prohibited American citizens from doing business with them. The leaders, including junta chief Senior Gen. Than Shwe, are believed to have few if any such connections.
Special envoy Ibrahim Gambari was dispatched to Myanmar, also known as Burma, by the United Nations, which has compiled a lengthy record of failure in trying to broker reconciliation between the junta and detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
“Nobody is taking Gambari seriously any more. What can he do? He and other special envoys have been here again and again, and nothing happened,” said one veteran Myanmar journalist in Yangon, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Like other international figures and institutions, including the Red Cross and the U.N. International Labor Organization, Gambari had been hoodwinked, snubbed and sometimes barred from entry by the ruling State Peace and Development Council which has clearly signaled it won’t give into any foreign pressure that might lead to an erosion of its absolute power.
“Unless and until Beijing, (New) Delhi and Moscow stand in unison in pressuring the SPDC for change, little will change,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
“The SPDC has virtually invented its own `great game’ in which it has become a masterful manipulator and has been winning to the consternation of the wider world,” he said.
However, none of the three powers seem prepared to go beyond words in their dealings with the junta, ruling out sanctions as they jostle for a chance to get at Myanmar’s bountiful and largely untapped natural resources, especially its oil and gas. The regime, Thitinan says, adroitly plays one off against the other.
Japan, the biggest aid donor, has also said it would not impose sanctions, even though one of its journalists was shot in the demonstrations.
The United States, Japan and others have turned a hopeful eye on China as the most likely outside catalyst for change. Beijing is Myanmar’s biggest trading partner, largest military supplier and its closest ally, with a cross-border oil pipeline already helping fuel its booming economy. A stable, friendly Myanmar on its southern flank remains a geopolitical priority.
But some Chinese academics and diplomats say the international community may be overestimating what Beijing can do to shape events inside the country.
“I actually don’t think China can influence Burma at all except through diplomacy. China’s influence is not at all decisive,” says Peking University Southeast Asia expert Liang Yingming.
Despite its status as the world’s largest democracy, India has switched from a vocal opponent of the junta to one currying favor with the generals as it struggles to corner energy supplies for its own rapidly expanding economy.
With masses of demonstrators led by Buddhist monks swirling through Yangon last Sunday, India’s petroleum minister was in Myanmar signing gas and oil exploration contracts with the government.
Southeast Asian countries potential agents for change in Myanmar last week issued one of their toughest statements, expressing “revulsion” over repression of the demonstrations and urging the military government to seek a political solution.
But the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, a 10-member bloc which includes Myanmar, has given no indication that it is even considering an expulsion or taking any other action.
ASEAN has in the past chastised the West for confronting Myanmar rather than pursuing a low-key “Asian-style” approach to political change in Myanmar. But a series of such attempts including “constructive engagement,” “flexible engagement” and “enhanced interaction” have to date failed.
And Myanmar has not repaid such a gentle touch in kind. During the ASEAN Summit in 2004, the bloc’s leaders stood red-faced before the international community as member Myanmar announced it was extending Suu Kyi’s house arrest.
“Myanmar has been playing around them (ASEAN members) from day one. It has always said, `Be patient … in a matter of time we will restore democracy.’ ASEAN on its part has been saying `It’s OK, we will give you a chance.’ It’s all a play, like a puppet show,” said a former senior ASEAN official, who requested anonymity given his current sensitive position.
As governments from Australia to France heap criticism on the junta, Myanmar and foreign activists have been calling for concrete, urgent action.
“The world cannot fail the people of Burma again,” said the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, an exile group based in Thailand. “Selfless sacrifices deserve more than words and lip-service. They want effective intervention before it is too late.”
Associated Press reporters Jim Gomez, Sutin Wannabovorn, Matthew Streib and Tim Sullivan contributed to this report.