International Papers

Starving for Freedom in Burma

A storm of controversy is building over Burma’s repressive military government. On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department announced its belief that the country’s most famous dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, is on hunger strike to protest her illegal imprisonment by Burmese authorities, a confinement the authorities claim is for her own protection. Recipient of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, Suu Kyi heads a democracy movement that won national elections 13 years ago—Burma’s military rulers annulled the results and remained in power. Despite mounting international pressure, including severe trade sanctions, Suu Kyi has been in detention since May 30, while Burma continues to be wracked by poverty and ethnic conflict.

This bad press is the last thing Burma’s generals want right now, just as they tentatively begin to consider internal reforms. A recent top-level shuffle gave the ruling brass civilian titles and promoted the country’s long-time chief of intelligence, Gen. Khin Nyunt, to prime minister. A Manila Times op-ed noted that Nyunt, “considered in some quarters as a moderate,” had outlined plans for a revised constitution and free elections in a speech last Saturday. The State Department dropped its hunger strike bombshell three days later, citing “credible reporting from our embassy” (Suu Kyi’s condition cannot be verified, because no outsiders have seen her since a Red Cross visit in July). Few observers believed Burma’s reform announcement, and Britain’s Guardianangrily dismissed Nyunt as “just another jumped-up general who has never fought a battle in his life but is a veritable Napoleon when it comes to oppressing defenceless civilians.” Even the optimistic Manila Times piece demanded action, quoting an exiled opposition leader and a Thai senator who argued that reforms will not be taken seriously until Suu Kyi and other political prisoners are released. Pakistan’s Frontier Post called her “Burma’s icon of democracy” and concluded that “[s]hort of war, [her movement] should be provided every support.”

Burma’s international relations are precarious enough without global clamor over the alleged hunger strike. An article in Singapore’s Straits Times described the junta’s recent reform efforts as a response to growing international pressure: “The US and the European Union have imposed tougher sanctions on the impoverished country, while key donor Japan has frozen new aid.” But while the State Department called for Suu Kyi’s release, Thailand’s leaders joined the Burmese in denying that she is on hunger strike. An editorial in the Bangkok Nation titled “Marching in Step With the Generals” blasted the Thai foreign minister for trying to reform Burma by establishing “close connections with their leaders” instead of using tough love. Casting a blind eye over Burma’s crimes hurts Thailand’s international credibility, especially as pressure for reform mounts abroad. The Nation predicted Burma will come under increasing fire from the United Nations as November’s general assembly takes place and observers report on alleged new atrocities such as mass rapes and other “flagrant violations of human rights.”

However, reform may never come unless Burma’s immediate neighbors apply more pressure. An editorial in Indian daily the Hindu took this stance on India’s chummy relationship with Burma’s junta, pointing out that two high-level Indian military delegations visited the country this week, along with New Delhi’s commerce and telecommunications ministers. The visits had been planned well before the recent brouhaha, but the fact remains that India is strengthening ties with its neighbor despite Burma’s near-pariah status. The article also noted that Burma’s other gigantic neighbor, China, is pursuing a similarly cautious plan and argued that the junta may have played its cards right after all: “Having successfully built solid ties with the two Asian giants—India and China—who warily watch each other’s presence in Myanmar, the military rulers in Yangon have reasons to be confident that it will be impossible completely to isolate the nation.”