Friday, January 4, 2008

Burmese living on the edge, 60 years after independence

By South-East Asia correspondent Karen Percy
Soldiers stand behind a barricade in Rangoon

Soldiers were brought in to put down pro-democracy protests, killing anywhere from 30 to more than 100 people in the process. (File photo) (Reuters: Democratic Voice of Burma)

January 4 marked the 60th anniversary of Burma's independence from Britain.

Once the shining light of South-East Asia, decades of oppression have left it a devastated country with military rule bringing little else but violence, poverty and displacement to its people.

Locals of one small Burmese town on the Thai border say they have no water and no electricity.

Foodstuffs are scarce on the other side of the Moei River, and so they spend the day crossing in and out of Thailand under the watchful eye of soldiers.

All along this part of the river, boats come and go all day, ferrying people and goods across the border.

Professor David Steinberg, a specialist on south-east Asian politics from Georgetown University in the US, says the military is still driving the country, 46 years after taking control.

"The complete control over that economy, that political process, social mobility in the society is all dependent now on the military," he said.

"The military was important at the beginning but they are now virtually a state within a state."

Over the decades, more than with million Burmese have fled their homeland, crossing mountains or rivers to escape poverty and persecution.

Many of them live in Thailand but for those who escape, life is just as uncertain in many ways as those who remain.

The students at one school in Mae Sot are mostly ethnic Karens from Burma, but each day they raise the Thai flag and sing the Thai anthem.

Their loyalty to this new country will be tested if they leave school or when they have completed Year 12, because then they have no status in Thailand and may be forced back to Burma.

"We want our country to be like other countries so we can live peacefully and people do not threaten us, just stay in our own place with democracy," said a student from the school.

The mountains along Thailand's western border are home to more than 140,000 Burmese refugees.

Many have been here for close to 20 years, since the last attempt to rise up against the junta.

They still hold out hope that they will return. The recent unrest, though, has brought more refugees over the border.

Their numbers are small but they share a common bond. Many of them are monks who participated in last year's protests against the Government.

Challenging the junta

"If I go back to my country now, I would surely be sent to the prison and disrobed, so I dare not return to my country now," one monk, who does not want to be identified, told the ABC.

He fled his Rangoon monastery just days after the crackdown, after taking part in pro-democracy protests.

"After the soldiers threw tear gas, I saw with my own eyes that monks and students were being beaten and arrested," he said.

But the monks' movement was short-lived. The junta sent in the troops to put down the unrest, killing anywhere from 30 to more than 100 people in the process.

Charles Petrie, an official with the United Nations, describes the monks' repression as "traumatic".

"The monks are a pillar of the beliefs in society, for the security apparatus to turn on the monks as violently as they did, I think, does introduce an element of trauma and shock that will take a long time to heal," he said.

Until November, Mr Petrie was the most senior officer for the United Nations inside Burma. He was expelled for criticising the junta.

Over four and a half years he watched the generals isolate themselves further from the world and he saw the people struggle.

"The monks articulated that message because they see it. I mean, they are dependent on alms to meet their own everyday needs," he said.

"I think they were seeing that people are increasingly unable to provide for them, but then they were also seeing that a greater number of children were coming into the monastic schools and that's because families could not afford any other form of education."

Costs have risen and humanitarian agencies report that the junta is now providing even less for health and education, despite multi-billion dollars in revenue from its national energy sector.

A changed nation

Burma today is a very different country to the one that had so much promise when the British walked away 60 years ago.

In those early years of independence, Rangoon was seen as a sophisticated city. Burma was often described as the rice basket of Asia, with great natural resources.

But the optimism that independence brought was short-lived. Democracy struggled and the military took power in 1962 and has never looked back.

"If anybody had said that Bangladesh was going to be better off than Burma, they would have been laughed out of the room," said Professor Steinberg.

"That Laos was going to be better off than Burma - [it was] impossible to even consider such a circumstance."

The military junta was challenged in 1988 by a pro-democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

The junta has put her under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years.

Despite demands for her release from protesters and the international community, she remains locked behind the gate of her Rangoon home by a military unable, or unwilling, to accept change.

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