Image source: straitstimes.com
A sad day, indeed. I hope, in death, he will get the recognition in Singapore that was denied him in life.
Image source: fillybustercartoons.com
General Than Shwe is not widely known outside of Burma. Safely ensconced in the new capital city he and his military cronies have built for themselves, he lives a life of luxury while the people of Burma struggle to make ends meet. There are very few of these narcissistic oligarchs left in the world today (Robert Mugabe being one of the more prominent), and in the increasingly globalised world, I find it astonishing that so-called democracies have allowed them to get away with it for as long as they have. There are many guilty parties, but top of the list, in my opinion, is ASEAN. China, India and Japan come in for criticism for their strong business links with the regime, but ASEAN should have done more before now to deal with one of its own. ASEAN foreign ministers met at the UN in New York yesterday, and in uncharacteristically blunt language, they voiced their revulsion at the killings in Rangoon. Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo demanded that the Burmese government “immediately desist from the use of violence against demonstrators”. Even General Surayud, the Thai Prime Minister and fellow ‘military dictator’ (albeit of a bloodless coup), spoke out at the UN in criticism of the Burmese military junta. This is very commendable, but now they have to ‘walk the talk’.
Image source: cnn.com
Just read a very good piece by Andrew Harding on the BBC web site documenting his observations of the events unfurling in Burma. The accompanying video clip also provides a vivid account of how miserable life is under this military dictatorship. The key question is how thick-skinned the generals are, cocooned in their custom-built capital several hours drive north of Rangoon. The refusal of the monks to take alms from the government is tantamount to “excommunication” and — theoretically at least — should make them feel very uncomfortable. There are around 400,000 monks in Burma and if they all join the demonstrations, and more people gain the courage to come out and support them, there will be pressure on the army to deserts the generals, and then the situation will become untenable. In the meantime, the regime continues in its efforts to manipulate things; the media publishing no images of the demonstrations showing, instead, staged pictures of generals giving lavish gifts to monasteries.
Image source: aljazeera.net
After a sixth straight day of protest by Burmese monks against the military junta, there are no signs of a loss of momentum. The news breaking today is that the protestors have been allowed to march past Aung San Suu Kyi’s home, where they were greeted by Suu Kyi herself. With the regime clearly nervous about confronting the monks, confidence is growing as people are joining the monks in their protest. A glimmer of hope perhaps, but I fear there may be a lot of bloodshed before this is over.
Image source: Reuters
I caught a snippet on BBC World the other day which typifies the incoherent approach of the Chinese to the environment. The public pronouncements from the centre convey the message that the government is cracking down on environmental vandalism. The reality of the situation in the provinces is quite different as the new and increasingly powerful industrial class thumbs its nose at Beijing. Thus, a man like Wu Lihong, can be named among China’s top 10 environmentalists and feted at a ceremony in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2005 after his work drew attention to the fact chemical factories were pouring effluent into Lake Taihu, and be jailed for 3 years last month for allegedly extorting $7200 from businesses by threatening to report them for environmental crimes.
The reality of the situation is that local businessmen in towns around the lake closed ranks against him. When Wu was arrested in his hometown of Yixing in April, he was preparing to travel to Beijing to appeal to the authorities there. The trial was a farcical affair, where no witnesses were called to testify, and police statements went unchallenged. Wu’s wife also claims that he was tortured during five straight days of interrogation. Needless to say, since his arrest, the pollution at the lake has got worse, the local authorities having to turn off tap water for 2 million local residents because of a blue-green algae created by discharge from the chemical plants.
Burmese Foreign Minister, Nyan Win
Image source: www.reuters.com
There was a huge break with tradition this week when ASEAN foreign ministers agreed to set up a human rights body. The issue has been creating friction within the 10-member group, threatening to divert attention from their usual preoccupation with economic integration. According to Reuters, an insider revealed that Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Brunei — the six older members of ASEAN — persuaded Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam to accept the deal. Needless to say, Burma had opposed the idea, while the other three nations had asked for more time. The time-honoured consensus approach which has characterised ASEAN’s 40-year history ensured these differences were swept under the carpet, to arrive at an ‘in principle’ agreement. This might not seem a big deal, but this does constitute a major step forward and a sign that the more advanced nations within ASEAN are losing their patience with the military junta in Burma. The softly-softly strategy has clearly failed and now it is time to step up a gear because the increasingly bizarre behaviour of the Burmese government is becoming an embarrassment.
Image source: bbc.co.uk
A few weeks ago, the Red Cross took the unusual step of taking a political stance on the activities of a sovereign state. Less unusual, perhaps, was that the criticism was aimed at Burma (RealPlayer required). Notwithstanding the pronouncements of traditionally non-partisan bodies like this, the international community continues to fraternise with the Burmese military dictators, standing by while the rest of Burmese society continues to deteriorate. The latest news shows that despite statements to the contrary, many countries are indirectly supporting the regime by operating through others; the sale of helicopters via India being a case in point. Amnesty International observe that this transaction risks making a mockery of the EU’s ban on all sales to Burma. Sadly, it is not just the EU that is turning a blind eye.
I visited northern Thailand for the first time on Friday, driving up from Chiang Mai to the town of Mae Sai which borders Burma, and from there to the famous Golden Triangle. It was a thoroughly enjoyable trip although, against my better judgement, I agreed to take a side trip to visit a ‘hill tribe village’ just north of Chiang Rai. These groups are desperately poor and ‘entertain’ Western tourists in order to eke out an existence. I felt most uncomfortable as I observed other tourists delighting at the opportunity of taking photos of these people as they ‘performed’ in what are supposedly their natural surroundings. The ‘top attraction’ were the Karen Long Neck women. I felt like I was making a trip to see the ‘bearded lady at the circus’. Behind the forced smiles of these women, there was an emptiness in their eyes which made me very sad. I gave my money because I figured this wasn’t as bad as giving nothing at all, but in my embarrassment I couldn’t leave quickly enough. As for the inhumane practice of applying brass coil (see below) around the neck every few years from the age of five, as my mother commented (who accompanied me on the trip), only a man could have come up with this idea.