A lethal combination of the worst natural disaster to ever afflict it and an inefficient, uncaring military government focused on staying in power is ravaging Burma. But the same mix could lead to the regime change that the ruling junta has managed to prevent since 1988.
Burma has been under military rule since 1962, after decades of British colonial rule. It is listed by the United Nations among the world’s least developed countries. Political turmoil has never abated in that country, with various factions of the military as well as political parties and guerilla groups vying for power.
The present junta—renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997, and previously known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)—came to power in a bloody coup in 1988, when the military fired at protesting students and triggered nationwide protests.
The military used the protests which it had itself provoked as the excuse for further suppression. It launched a coup in September 1988 supposedly to restore order, in the process killing thousands of protesters including monks and students.
The junta suspended the 1974 Constitution and blamed the usual scapegoats—the communists—for the disorder when it took power, although the Communist Party of Burma was having severe problems of its own when the protests exploded. The junta has since promised the restoration of democracy and parliamentary rule, but has repeatedly shown that it has no such intention.
It called for a Constituent Assembly in 1989 to revise the 1974 Constitution. But the call led to elections in 1990 in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won by a landslide. The military prevented the Assembly it had itself called for from convening and kept Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. Although briefly released, she was once again placed under house arrest in 1996, and remains in that state today.
Burma became a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997 during the presidency of Fidel Ramos, which favored a policy of engagement with that country rather than isolation. The Ramos argument was that engagement with Asean and other countries could convince the ruling junta to loosen its grip on power and implement its own declared “roadmap to democracy.”
Only in the last eight to ten years have countries like the United States acted on the human rights violations in Burma by imposing economic sanctions on it. As for Asean, its member countries including the Philippines have argued that whatever the junta does are its internal concerns. The Asean human rights council thus emphasizes non-interference in each other’s affairs—of course including the state of human rights in such countries as Burma, Singapore, Malaysia, and, oh yes, the Philippines.
To what extent the junta is prepared to follow its own proclaimed roadmap to democracy has been demonstrated again and again, more recently during the September 2007 protests over rising prices and other issues, which it brutally suppressed. One of the few promises the junta has delivered on is the renaming of the country from Burma to Myanmar, which it announced in 1989, mainly for cosmetic purposes.
The junta’s focus on keeping its grip on power was and is once again being demonstrated before and after cyclone Nargis hit the old capital, Rangoon, and the Irrawaddy delta last Saturday.
Although the Indian Meteorological Department had repeatedly warned the Burmese government of the imminent danger the country faced as Nargis approached, the junta was focused on publicizing a referendum on the new constitution it has drafted without the participation of NLD and other pro-democracy groups.
Some 60,000 people have been killed, 40,000 are missing, and over a million have been made homeless as a result of the storm surges whipped up by Nargis, as well as the impact of its 200- kilometer-per-hour winds on a defenseless population. But the referendum on the constitution through which the junta hopes to strengthen its grip on power will go on, with the date for it moved in the worst hit areas of the country.
International aid groups are also complaining that the junta is preventing them from reaching the worst hit areas of the country, particularly the Irrawaddy, where most of the victims died, and where the survivors have no potable water and food, much less medical care, the area being under water.
Unless aid reaches the survivors, the prospects are starvation, disease and more deaths, but the junta doesn’t seem to care, and has figuratively shrugged its shoulders over the difficulties of reaching the survivors. Only in Rangoon has there been substantial relief success, with the UN World Food Program managing to distribute food and medical aid.
Media reports say that aid from various sources—among them from India and neighboring Thailand—is sitting at Rangoon airport. Meanwhile, the prices of rice, charcoal, cooking oil and bottled water have doubled in that city—in a country where millions live on US$2 a day.
Mass anger, say anti-junta activists, is rising, and some predict that at the very least, its conduct in the present crisis could help finally remove the junta from power. Mass anger, together with international condemnation and lack of support, could indeed be the turning point for Burma in the aftermath of the Nargis disaster, which is demonstrating that dictatorship indeed kills in more ways than through bayonets and bullets.