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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 109

7th July Student’s Perspective of Burma

By Kanbawza Win

Once again the unforgettable sad memories of the 7th July incident came around, when the Tatmadaw (at that time implemented by butcher Sein Lwin and ordered by Ne Win supported by Colonel Aung Gyi) gun down hundreds of peaceful students demonstrating Rangoon University students on 7th July 1962, to be exact half a century plus one year ago.

The next day the Rangoon University Student’s Union was blown up and since then the Tatmadaw was able to snuff out the brains of the country and thus was able to implement its Orwellian rule Burma up to this day dragging the country to the bottom of the ladder of the world.

Today while the quasi military government tries to shed its pariah status and the Western media is full of praises of democratic changes; it should give pause to the true nature of the Burmese Tatmadaw control regime. Underneath the trope of “democratic reform” lie some unpalatable truths. Not content with reserved military powers in government, parliament, and national budgets and untrammelled executive control of national security, the regime has mobilized the full arsenal of a self-serving repressive Junta to deny ethnic nationalities, not just their rights to self-determination but also to their fundamental humanity.Fascism and militarism are the enduring handmaidens of this “new era” of politics and the paradox is that it could fool the Western media.

While the headline-grabbing democratic reforms are welcome, resulting in millions of dollars in international development and humanitarian assistance, many believe they fail to address the economic hardships of Burma‘s 58 million people. Dr Zarni, founder of the Free Burma Coalition and a fellow at the London School of Economics, says

“Thein Sein’s reforms are largely geared towards creating a `late developmental state’ along the lines of Vietnam and China… Sadly, the West and the rest alike are choosing to overlook the apparent pitfalls of Burma‘s reforms, ignoring the cries of the wretched people of a new Burma.”

It seems that change is happening in the upper levels of government but the lives of the people are largely the same as before. While there are high hopes that the recent easing of international sanctions will change things, Burma remains one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia.

Ordinary people see little tangible improvement in their day-to-day lives, and inflation is having an adverse effect on the lives of many Burmese.

According to the UN’s most recent Integrated Household Living Conditions Assessment, the average proportion of total household budget spent on food is 68 percent 74 percent for the poorest 30 percent of the population.

A third of the country’s population lives below the poverty line, according to the World Bank, report and yet the world eulogizes Burma.

Since Thein Sein came to power, some 75,000 people have been displaced and humanitarian needs are growing, reports the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). At the same time, more than 100,000 people, nearly all Rohingyas, have been displaced in Western Arakan State, after inter-communal violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims erupted in June fanned by the military hardliners and the USDP. These conflicts are a major test for the Thein Sein government. Burma’s failure to contain sectarian violence in Arakan and Muslim hold accountable those responsible calls into question the Burmese government’s stated goal of becoming a rights-respecting, multi-ethnic state. Political leaders have conflicting views about how power should be shared under the illogical Nargis Constitution of 2008 as well as after the 2015 election; while many believe what is needed now is moral leadership to calm tension and seek compromises if divisive confrontation is to be avoided.

“An NLD landslide may not be in the best interests of the party or the country, as it would risk marginalizing three important constituencies: the old political elite, the ethnic political parties and the non-NLD democratic forces. If the post-2015 legislatures fail to represent the true political and ethnic diversity of the country, tensions are likely to increase and fuel instability. The main challenge the NLD faces is not to win the election, but to promote inclusiveness and reconciliation,” the ICG report says.

Although Thein Sein has spearheaded unprecedented change in Burma, many remain cynical about his motives for allowing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to run for election. Clearly the government is using her image as a democracy icon to promote and protect their way of reform. Their strategy is one of using your enemy’s good name to reach your own objective. The impetus behind the government’s democratic reforms goes beyond just promoting foreign trade. By the window-dressing “reforms to please Western governments” and enable the lifting of sanctions.

“The dictatorship hurt the nation’s pride. But they also want to lead the change. There will be less electoral fraud in 2015, but at the same time they will be smarter and will effectively use their political framework to weaken opposition. Of course, monitoring from the UN and international community is essential,”

Mark Farmener, Director of the London-based Burma Campaign UK describes the reforms to date as “top down and skin deep”.

Censorship laws have not been repealed, though how they have been applied has been changed, he said, adding that while there is currently more freedom for certain subjects to be reported, others, such as ethnic issues, remain banned. “Media are still not allowed to criticize the government,” he said.

According to a report entitled Vitality, Perception and Reality in Burma’s Democratic Reform by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), self-censorship continues as many journalists are unsure what they can write about without fear of government reprisal. The report says internal factions in the government are delaying reforms. There is evidently an internal power struggle in the government, between the government and the military and potentially between the president and his supporters and potentially with more hard line factions in the government supported by the Tatmadaw.

Of course the government released some political prisoners and relaxed restrictions on NGOs, and promised freedom for unions. Suspension of Myitsone dam project funded by China sends a message that the government is listening to civil society opponents of the project. These are small steps in the right direction, but do not dispel concerns about human rights abuses and constraints on political freedom which the Tatmadaw in lieu with the regime is imposing on the people of Burma. The mechanisms of repression remain in place and the reform process remains easily reversible, cautioning against giddy exuberance.

Key decision-makers in Burma want sanctions lifted and understand that the road to rejoining the international community and gaining legitimacy leads through the front gate of the house where Daw Aung San Suu Kyi spent most of the past two decades under house arrest. Jailing or marginalizing her was always a dead-end strategy because only she has the moral authority to promote national reconciliation and normalize external relations. But here again here, her popularity has began to wane in terms of ethnic nationalities especially in Kachin and Rohingya cases when realpolitik takes over her rationale. However, if compared to the West’s Business always overrules the Conscience it is far better.

The U.S., Japan and the EU have responded carefully to Naypidaw's opening, and opening the spigots of development assistance depends on further evidence of reform. Investors are also waiting for a strengthening of the rule of law to ensure their interests are protected.

No doubt the current government is dominated by former military officers (26 of 30 Cabinet ministers) and holds power only because of widespread election fraud in 2010, so there are good reasons to remain wary. The Tatmadaw men they retired from is responsible for the slaughtering and jailing of monks and students in the 1988 uprising and again during the Saffron Revolution in 2007 is still very much in control.. The current Nargis Constitution of 2008, one imposed following a rigged referendum in 2008, allocates 25 percent of seats to the military and gives it de facto veto powers will be the hall marks of the coming 2015 elections.

Burma has been nominally under civilian rule for the past two years, but the government officials leading the transition to democracy today are largely the former apparatchiks of the military governments that ruled the country for more than five decades.

Burma unlike other countries emerging from years of extreme repression in that there have been few calls for trials, war crimes tribunals or even the kind of truth-and-reconciliation commission that helped South Africa move beyond apartheid. The tone has been set by the most famous of the thousands of the country’s former political prisoners, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the political opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate who spent a total of 15 years under house arrest before her release in 2010. For Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, which leads the opposition in Parliament, there is a critical political element to the pragmatism. The next general elections are in 2015, and for them to proceed smoothly without a threat of a return to military rule, many are urging a go-softly approach.

To the outside world, Burma’s transition from military rule to fledgling democracy appeared jarringly forgiving. Even those who suffered torture and years of solitary confinement as political prisoners say there is no point calling for retribution. They cite the role of Buddhism, certain pragmatism and, in some cases, political calculations for their restraint. The old elite — the generals and the businessmen who were close to them — are reinventing themselves.

The most stark example maybe Khin Nyunt, the former head of military intelligence, once feared and loathed for the torture his agents inflicted, now runs an art gallery. Burma’s former dictator, Senior General Than Shwe, is reportedly enjoying a peaceful retirement in secluded compound, while family members who grew rich during his military rule live luxurious lifestyles that contrast with the crippling poverty that afflicts most of the country. And a former top general in what was one of the world’s most repressive governments, Thein Sein, is president, hailed both inside the country and abroad as a great reformer is now in nominated list for the Nobel Peace Prize. May be I have gone insane witnessing all these illogical aspects.

Bur such omens doesn’t augur well for an old 7th July student, some of whom are still surviving, seeing the contemporary History of the Union of Burma unfolding in front of our eyes. The whole concept these days is that the hardliner of the Tatmadaw, who are hand in gloves with the USDP are trying to draw the reforms back by encouraging the extremist Buddhist monks to practice the tyranny of the majority and creating religious and sectarian strife not satisfied with the ethnic cleansing of the ethnic nationalities. Will the Thein Sein administration carry on the reforms with this scenario is everybody’s guess?

A dotage like me dream to let our younger generation knows of what Rangoon University is like which in Burmese we lovingly says literally translated as a serene island of learning,M.i> not that I dream of the regime reconstructing the Student’s Union building (donated by U Nyo) where we used to hang around its teashop or the four hostels Amra, Ramanya, Mandalay and Toungoo Halls (whose students were the most to be killed on that fateful day) but that what Rangoon University think of today, Burma will think of tomorrow. Even President Obama was being tricked to give a speech at its Convocation Hall, we visualize that an ordinary people of Burma don’t have any chance. However 7th July incident will go down in the annals of history as the first attempt by the students to unmask the true colour of Tatmadaw and that men may come and men may go, but 7 July incident will live forever.

Footnote:

Speech of Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch

Mizzima Sein Win comments in interview with ICG

Kingston; Jeff, Burma and the search for democracy. A book repot of Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's Struggle for Democracy, by Bertil Lintner

Fuller;Thomas, A Myanmar in Transition Says Little of Past Abuse New York Time 14-6-2013

- Asian Tribune -

Rangoon University Students’ Union building was demolished by dynamite, and many students in the building were killed which now became known as the 7 July Students’ massacre.
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