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Is Burma softening its stance? The BBC is currently posing this question on its website in a fairly lengthy piece by my Bangkok colleague Alistair Leathead.
The article quotes Derek Tonkin, former British Ambassador to Bangkok turned Burma watcher as saying: ‘Given the impasse of the last 20 years, what has happened in the last three months gives us the hope there will be some movement’.
The developments were that Senator Jim Webb was allowed to see Aung San Suu Kyi and also met with Than Shwe and who then reported back apparently to Obama that sanctions were not working.
Another reason was apparently a switch in US Foreign Policy to ‘pragmatic engagement’ but I am not sure if I see any change there. The US I believe has always considered itself to be pragmatically engaged everywhere, except the ‘Axis of Evil’.
But more recently Americans have been more vocal about Burma, hence the last Johnny Rambo film, fictionally and dramatically put on celluloid the very real brutality against its citizens. So brutal perhaps that many people may not believe that the situation is actually worse.
Derek Tonkin tells Alistair: ‘The generals are looking for international recognition for the 2010 election. They are trying to co-opt Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy to take part in the elections without any constitutional change.
‘We are still waiting for a really significant movement, but I could see Aung San Suu Kyi being released before the election if they could secure an understanding.’
I do not share Derek Tonkin’s muted enthusiasm. You could say there is a little gulf between us. In any case Derek Tonkin, reading between the lines, is quite cautious. But why would Aung San Suu Kyi come to an understanding about a forthcoming election which has been widely discredited a long time in advance with fairly firm evidence it is being rigged?
And we already know what happens when the junta lose an election.
The United Nations appeared to accomplished nothing. The Press briefings for journalists after the latest ‘rapporteur’ came out of Rangoon were not even worth attending. Of course the U.S. of A probably has more clout than the U.N. Aung San Suu Kyi may be released, but the moment they smell trouble the junta will have her back under lock and key in jiffy.
With the Karen National Liberation Army Eastern Burma 1987
I have been watching Burma for nearly 25 years making films for the BBC (Burma’s Forgotten War) with the Karen and (Lord of the Golden Triangle) with ‘opium warlord’ Khun Sa and the Shan State Army (of Mong Tai Army) for ITV and also reporting for newspapers.
I have met and interviewed Aung San Suu Kyi, was in Rangoon for the 1988 uprising for the ‘Observer’ and later again in Burma for the last ‘election’. All my trips to Burma have of course been illegal and when I was working on a BBC commission I was welcomed into villages in the middle of nowhere like a liberating general. Our trip appeared to give them some sort of hope.
I did not think then that the situation would be the same, if not worse, 20 years later.
The Burma’s military would have us believe they are benignly looking after their people. Evidence is that they are daily engaged in the slaughter, rape and torture of innocent civilians.
Much of this is monitored by the excellent ‘Free Burma Rangers’ who penetrate deeply into Burma offering medical and other aid.
The fact is that Britain, and the world has let down Burma. There will be no liberating army. Singapore and China openly supply the regimes weapons. Britain washed its hand of Burma’s minorities, with whom it ruled Burma, in the Panglong Agreement.
I even have a ‘friend ‘ who is investing in a tourist boat service near Pagan. He does not get it. And if I can’t persuade him, then I am not about to persuade any world leaders. They do what is expedient to themselves.
I am no apologist for the British Empire. But Britain did at least leave Burma with a structure, a justice system, and education system, and a functioning civil service, and did the same wherever its soldiers went…except perhaps Afghanistan!
The Burma’s junta has demonstrated how they can turn all those safeguards for democracy into weapons against the people.
And the British Empire has merely been replaced by the United States as the world policeman, but its agenda has been much more homeland security and oil, and I am not sure Obama has made such drastic changes in its stance towards Burma.
The fact is in Asia there are few bad guys. At least few guys are regarded as such in history. In Britain we relish in our mad, stupid, and often ruthless Kings. We squeal with delight when we catch out MPs fiddling with their expenses. If the London Sun were to have free reign to publish in Bangkok every day its most oft used headline might be ‘Liar. Lair Pants on Fire!’
In Asia it’s different. It’s a ‘face’ thing. Thai history for example seems to have nothing but heroes. But we have all heard the expression ‘Life is cheap here’.
In Europe and the west we have Hitler as our ogre. In Cambodia I suppose we have Pol Pot, Saloth Sar and his cronies. But do we really? The trials of the Khmer Rouge have been decades in the coming and have turned out all to be rather a damp squib. There are not many people outside Cambodia who can remember the names of the lesser Khmer Rouge ‘war criminals’ on trial in Phnom Penh. Ask yourself? Moreover did not the west in fact indirectly support the Khmer Rouge when the communist Cambodian government was backed by Vietnam?
And then there are the atrocities committed under the rule of Chairman Mao?
On a smaller scale perhaps Thailand’s ‘War on Drugs’ has left little stigma on its architect Thaksin Shinawatra. In fact it was widely supported even though of the some 2,500 mostly ‘killed injudicially’ ( murdered) many were totally innocent and there were no ‘big boys’.
And in Thailand a petty foreign thief is going to serve more time than a politician corruptedly pocketing public money.
And while Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, Thailand has many commercial interests there. That is why General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh former Prime Minister who is now making a new bid for the spotlight can say: ‘I am, if you will, a super-prime minister. It’s not an exaggeration. The relations I’ve built with the neighbours are immense, spanning many years. It’s not just a partnership. We’re one family. With the Burmese leaders, we’re practically brothers.’
In both Burma and Cambodia we have to consider Chavalit’s self interests and of course those of Thaksin Shinawatra.
The Japanese atrocities in World War 11 have never really been accepted back home and now 60 years on the Japanese are already taking a lead in creating a new ‘Greater Asia Prosperity Sphere’, though this now thankfully without the shouts of ‘Banzai’.
So will the Generals in Burma ever be called to account for the genocide within their own country? Probably not. There have been so many of them, nobody has been there long enough to specifically be labelled Burma’s ogre, after Ne Win.
What will happen to Burma? I guess we will all do what’s expedient at the time.
But personally, I cannot exercise pragmatism when it comes to Burma’s military rulers. Anyone who has been amongst the victims of Burmese military justice may have the same problem.