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Hatred not enough to unseat Myanmar's all-powerful military

DPA, Nov 1, 2007

Singapore -- US professor and Myanmar expert David Steinberg said he has witnessed a new development in the past month in the South-East Asian country. "It is the first time ever that people actually said, 'I hate the military.' I had never heard it like that before," the director of Asian studies at Washington's Georgetown University said on a visit to Singapore.

The deepening loathing of the military, which has ruled Myanmar since 1962, came after the regime's deadly crackdown in September on peaceful demonstrations led by the country's revered monks.

But even before those protests, love was not the word to describe the relationship between the people and the ruling military junta, which has been cited as one of the most repressive regimes in the world, guilty of a raft of human rights violations.

In its latest critical report on Myanmar, Human Rights Watch charged its army Wednesday with forcibly recruiting children as young as 10 into its ranks, threatening them with arrest and beating them until they agree to "volunteer."

Tin Maung Maung Tan with the Institute of South-East Asian Studies in Singapore estimated the military's troop numbers at 380,000. It came to power in a coup aimed at ending chaos in a country prone to ethnic insurrections. At the time, many in a country that was then called Burma welcomed the coup. But instead of uniting the country, the military junta stoked fears of strife to cement its self-professed role as the sole guarantor of the unity of the country, which the regime renamed Myanmar in 1989.

"They really believe the country would fall apart without them," Steinberg said.

The military also styles itself as a development worker, but to carry out road construction, for example, it relies on forced labour, pressing people into road crews. A village might be detailed to break stones with its own tools "for the benefit of all," as the junta calls it.

The army's vocabulary also includes the term "donations" for money collected in raids, most recently those carried out in retaliation for September's demonstrations.

"They just reach into the till at businesses and shops as they search for alleged ringleaders," said Zin Linn, spokesman for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, an exile opposition group in Bangkok.

"They say, 'This is to help feed the soldiers who protect you,'" Zin Linn said.

Such forced contributions are the order of the day, he said, providing an example of a friend who is a textile dyer who employs 30 people.

"He gets regular visits at which he must hand over money for new schools, roads or military celebrations," Zin Linn said.

The military also needs money to pay the people it carts to demonstrations that it organizes in support of the regime - 100 kyat per person, according to Zin Linn. Such a payday amounts to about 7 US cents, but in one of the poorest countries in the world where about a quarter of the population lives on less than 1 dollar a day, every cent counts.

More than 50,000 people are often gathered at stadiums or remote parade grounds in the provinces to chant slogans supporting the junta at rallies that are then spotlighted on state-run television.

Most of the people living in Myanmar have only known life under a military dictatorship, causing the domination of the uniformed elite to be seldom questioned despite its repression, rights abuses, disastrous economic policies and the luxury in which its generals live compared with the general population.

Large firms in the country are owned by the officers or their family members. In Yangon, the country's largest city, passersby can sometimes catch glimpses of luxurious gardens behind the high walls and iron gates of villas guarded by soldiers.

"Those with high ranks live here," a taxi driver told a foreign visitor.

The depth of the hatred for the regime was shown this week in the first demonstration held since September's brutal crackdown, in which the government said 10 people were killed although diplomats and dissidents put the death toll much higher.

About 200 Buddhist monks marched Wednesday in Pokokku, a city on the Irrawaddy River 30 kilometres north-east of Bagan whose monks sparked September's protests.

Despite the people's anger, residents, dissidents and outside experts on Myanmar are in agreement that the military would retain its hold on the country for the foreseeable future.

Its 45 years in power have allowed the military to gain control of all facets of Myanmar's society. Civil servants, companies, schools, hospitals and social clubs - all are in its grip.

In addition, all dissidents are rounded up and jailed. Democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years. As a result, Myanmar lacks alternative institutions that could govern the country.

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