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Burma Needs the World's Help

The Nation, September 25, 2007

Bangkok, Thailand -- Peaceful demonstrations against the Burmese military junta have been held daily for the past month. In the past week, thousands of Buddhist monks have taken to the streets in the former capital and commercial centre of Rangoon and other cities around the country.

They have vowed to continue to express their discontent with their repressive military rulers. Few people expected that the demonstrations in mid-August against a dramatic rise in oil prices would escalate into the current full-blown mass demonstrations led by Buddhist monks.

The international community must not let the Burmese people down this time. They have endured brutal repression over the past 19 years and have shown their resolve and demonstrated that they want change, not only in their everyday lives, but also in the country's political, economic and social spheres as well. Students who were active in the pro-democracy movement two decades ago, many of whom were arrested and tortured, are rejoining the demonstrations with high hopes. Now Buddhist monks around the country are taking over the leadership of the anti-government protest.

These brave monks have told students and the public not to join in the demonstrations because they could be harmed in the event of a violent crackdown by the government. The monks are demonstrating and drawing bigger crowds everyday. The military junta knows full well that any use of force against the robed demonstrators would galvanize the entire nation and could result in its immediate downfall.

As events unfold inside Burma, the UN Security Council continues with its wait-and-see approach. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's envoy on Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, has pleaded for perseverance and patience from all sides in Burma. It is a bit too much to ask given the fact that the Burmese people have already suffered so much at the hands of the military junta. The situation on the ground is also changing fast and it could come to a head in the coming days or weeks and that would render the UN's current feeble efforts irrelevant. Members of the UN Security Council must unite and support the Burmese people's struggle for democracy.

Indonesia, which is chairing the Council at the moment, has a pivotal role to play. Indonesian President Bambang Yudhoyono has made the promotion of democracy a cornerstone of his administration's policy. This time he better deliver on Burma. Otherwise, he would be seen as a hypocrite. So far, Asean has been quiet on Burma as the grouping is trying to finalize the draft Asean charter.

It is puzzling that when Thailand faced a political crisis last year following a military coup, Asean leaders did not hesitate to comment on it. But when it comes to Burma, Asean leaders suddenly are at a loss for words. While the international community has expressed concern over Burma, the grouping's recalcitrance and reticence over Burma could belittle the Asean spirit and cheapen the charter it is trying to put together.

Apart from Asean, China and India must also put pressure on the Burmese military government to exercise restraint. China has already felt growing international pressure to do so. Chinese leaders in Beijing have made several comments urging Burma to accelerate liberalization and national reconciliation. More could be done by moving away from verbal support to a more tangible approach.

It is widely known that India's influence over the Burmese regime is minimal compared to that of China. Nonetheless, as the world's largest democracy, India should at least show some support for the rising democratic aspirations within Burma. Disappointingly, India has chosen to show indifference.

Engaging these two to bring about positive political change in Burma will not be easy. But ways must be found for them to make constructive contributions to the struggle for democracy in Burma.

The UNSC must act decisively to show its support for the Burmese people in their determination to free their country from oppression. It must do so before the Burmese military junta orders a crackdown that would lead to the loss of lives.

The UN must provide leadership for the international community to put pressure on the Burmese government, which must be told in no uncertain terms that the use of lethal force against peaceful demonstrators is unacceptable and can never be justified.

This editorial appeared in Thailand's English newspaper The Nation on September 25, 2007

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