Peaceful defiance

Burma’s military junta now faces the biggest challenge to its rule since 1988, as protests against the sharp hikes in oil prices have now snowballed into protests against the regime itself. The demonstrations have increased in size and spread across Yangon and other cities. Monks and pink-robed nuns are leading the peaceful marches. The regime is also facing a spiritual boycott, as the monks are reportedly refusing to accept alms from anybody connected with the top level of the military. This holds considerable significance in a country where most families send at least one son to the monastery. The bad news for the junta is that political repression coexists with economic crisis — inflation runs at 40 per cent and most people live under hardship. The military rulers threatened action on September 24 after 100,000 people marched on the streets of Yangon. And now, the junta has imposed curfews and banned assemblies of more than five persons.

The protesters carrying placards and banners are demanding nothing less than the removal of military regime. Some of them chanted support for Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Prize winner, who has been kept in house arrest for 11 of the past 17 years after her National League for Democracy won the 1990 general election. Burma has been something of an international pariah for a number of years, under sanctions from several countries. But this time around, the regime, uncharacteristically, has showed restraint so far — perhaps not risking a crackdown on the monks that could produce unpleasant results for it; perhaps, as some believe, because of the restraining hand of China, which is widely seen to be an important factor in the regime’s survival; and perhaps also because of the increasing international pressure. Many Westerners believe that China is the key to solution, because its support for the junta has rendered Western sanctions ineffectual.

But it is also a fact that China has followed a more or less consistent policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, whereas some powerful Western countries have pursued a policy of selective intervention for democracy. Often, their support has come only when democracy has not clashed with their other ‘vital’ foreign policy interests, and, in the process, they have prescribed, wherever possible, the degree of democracy and who or what party should be in power. This selectivity has weakened their moral authority and credibility in developing countries. That said, however, the Burmese people’s struggle for democracy deserves support of the entire world, and for that matter, the cause of democracy should be upheld in other countries too where military regimes or dictatorships rule. If the junta feels seriously threatened, it could well resort to repressive measures, as it has done in the past. In this, China, India, the ASEAN, of which Burma is a member, and other countries should play a positive role in nudging Burma towards a democratic civilian rule.