CCB Source: Asian Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, July 17, 2002


A Regime Change in Burma

By BENEDICT ROGERS

It is now well over two months since Burma's democracy leader Aung San Suu
Kyi was released from house arrest. Yet nothing has changed and, for the
ethnic minorities who have been fighting a 53-year struggle for freedom,
the situation has got worse. It is, according to some, the worst year for
Burma's ethnic groups since 1997. But still the world remains almost
silent about their plight.

A senior Karen leader told me recently that when Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was
released, his people hoped for three things: the release of all other
political prisoners, an end to the Burmese military regime's war against
the ethnic minorities and the start of meaningful dialogue between the
junta, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and the ethnic groups. The junta has so far
failed on all counts.

The junta is not just oppressive, it is obscene. Its tactics are not just
violent, they are vulgar. The actions of one Burmese military commander,
who led his soldiers in attacks against villages in Karen state, speak for
the regime. He was recently described by an eyewitness -- in a report by
the Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian group that operates deep inside
Burma -- as urinating on a Buddhist monk's head and then saying: "I don't
respect any religion. My religion is the trigger of my gun."

In another well-known incident, described to me by a relief worker for a
group operating in the refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border, a
Burmese soldier entered a Karen village and saw a 15 year-old girl walking
with her father. He shot her father dead, raped the girl and then put the
barrel of his gun inside her and fired. "This was not an ordinary crime,
this was a dirty crime," said the relief worker.

A Burmese general a few years ago revealed the true intentions of the
junta when he said: "In ten years all Karen will be dead ... you will have
to visit a museum in Rangoon to see one." If the world does not act, that
intention may become a reality. Of the seven million Karen population,
there are an estimated 100,000 refugees in Thailand and a further 300,000
have become displaced from their homes and are trapped in the jungles of
Burma. Their villages have been destroyed and their crops burned. The
report from the Free Burma Rangers describes the Karen as "hunted, shelled
and driven like animals."

It is not only the Karen or Karenni who are suffering. There are still
1,000 or more political prisoners held in Burmese jails. And the Shan
people -- another ethnic minority in Burma -- have been the targets of a
renewed offensive in recent months. The Burmese military has been arming
Wa ethnic forces to fight the Shan, and has put drug warlord Wei
Hsueh-kang in charge of a new militia group tasked with destroying the
Shan State Army's bases along the Thai border.

Now the junta wants Thailand's cooperation in its offensive against the
ethnic groups. Burma recently requested permission for its troops to enter
Thai soil to pursue ethnic leaders. Bizarrely, the Thai defense minister
declined to comment. A few days later he announced orders for the Thai
authorities to arrest any ethnic leaders found in Thailand. So not content
with squeezing the ethnic groups inside Burma, the junta wants to raise
the pressure on them from Bangkok as well.

The junta only released Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi in an attempt to divert
international pressure on it for reform. Now, in a further effort to
divert attention away from its human rights abuses, Burma has been
stirring up nationalist sentiment and provoking tensions with Thailand.
While the Karen were initially suspected of carrying on an attack on a
school bus in Thailand earlier this year, their leaders claim to have
investigated the case and found evidence to prove it was instead the work
of Burmese military intelligence. Rangoon has been creating border
tensions "very systematically," said one Karen leader, to shift the
spotlight away from pressure for political change within Burma.

The junta has been given many chances. It is 12 years since the election
in which Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy won
over 80% of the parliamentary seats. They are the elected government, yet
still the generals sit there, ignoring that result. And the world waits.
It is time for the world to wake up. The United Nations, the U.S., Britain
and other democratic nations now need to consider direct intervention to
restore democracy and peace to Burma.

First the world should knock on Beijing's door. China is Burma's best --
and almost only -- friend. China has armed the junta and invested heavily
in infrastructure and communications equipment that help keep the junta in
power. The international community should show Beijing the photographs of
mutilated Karen, Karenni and Shan villagers, the pictures of burning
houses and smoldering rice paddies, and ask China why it arms such a
regime. The world should urge China to cease arming the junta and, more
positively, to use its friendship with Rangoon to influence the situation
for good. If Beijing suggested to the generals that they cease their
brutal suppression of the ethnic minorities, the junta might just listen.

Even if such a strategy didn't produce immediate results, it could pave
the way for international intervention. If Western nations sent in troops
without seeking China's help, Beijing would undoubtedly furiously denounce
this as interference in Burma's internal affairs. But if the world sought
China's help first, it would give Beijing some "face" -- recognition that
its influence counts. And if China failed, or refused, to use its
influence, then Beijing would have fewer grounds for complaint about any
subsequent international intervention. The world could then say to
Beijing: "We asked you to help and you failed, so we have to do it."

The common objection to intervention is that it is interference in the
domestic affairs of a sovereign state. But that is a pathetic argument
when the regime that currently rules that state is illegitimate. As one
Karen military commander told me recently, "How can genocide, the killing
of innocent civilians, continuing human rights abuses, rape, looting,
destruction be an 'internal matter'? It is an international matter." Burma
shares a border with Thailand, where many of the Karen and Karenni have
fled. Burma is tied up in the drugs trade, which the Karen and others have
been helping to fight. Both those factors, as well as the human suffering
involved, make it an international matter.

Military intervention in Burma wouldn't be as difficult as some may think.
Blockade Burma for a week, and give the regime time to think. If there is
still no change, send in a few hundred troops, with ethnic rebel armies,
and invite Burmese soldiers to defect. Offer defectors blankets, food and
the hope of peace, and many would switch sides. The pack of cards in
Rangoon would collapse.

Burma under the military junta is no different from Afghanistan under the
Taliban, Kosovo under Slobodan Milosevic or East Timor under Indonesian
occupation. The same grotesque human rights violations occur on a daily
basis. If NATO could act against Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo, and the
U.S. and its allies could intervene against the Taliban in Afghanistan,
why treat the Burmese junta differently? The precedent is there, the
capability is there, the moral justification is there -- now the political
will is needed.

Mr. Rogers is a free-lance journalist and founder of the human rights
group Christian Solidarity Worldwide in Hong Kong. He has recently been on
his third visit to the Thai-Burmese border.

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