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The Games They Play in Burma

The Games They Play in Burma

by J. Sri Raman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

On August 8, a small team of six athletes from Burma is scheduled to participate in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing. Very few back home, however, may be wondering on this occasion about the team's fortunes in the field, track, swimming, archery, rowing and canoeing events to follow. To millions of Burmese, the day will only bring agonizing memories of a defeated uprising for democracy.

An estimated 3,000 fell to the bullets of a brutally repressive military regime, as the Burmese people rose in revolt on August 8, 1988, remembered since then as 8.8.88 or simply as 8888. A large number of protesters fled the country, to survive as refugee populations in neighboring countries ranging from Thailand to India. On the 20th anniversary of the uprising, the Beijing pageantry will be blurred for many, many families as they tearfully recall the time they were torn asunder.

Burma had been under jackboots for 26 years at that time. In the two decades since then, many have professed and proclaimed support for the country's pro-democracy movement. The Burmese people, however, have only witnessed an ever-worsening situation.

We hear much talk in the media about the glaring contrast between Beijing's glittering sports show and its backing for Burma's junta. We have even heard calls for a boycott of the Olympics, which were bound to go unheeded. Very little, however, is heard of what proud democracies have done to help Burma's pro-democracy movement. What is the record of the US, the West and, last but not least, India, especially after forging a "strategic partnership" for the cause of democracy, in this regard?

On the eve of the anniversary, of course, President George W. Bush was himself present in person in close neighborhood, in Thailand, to provide the Burmese comfort and confidence. First Lady Laura Bush, whose heart has been bleeding for Burma though not for Iraq, has already made a well-publicized visit to a Burmese refugee camp on the border.

Neither her mission nor Bush's tribute to the "treatment of refugees by the government of Thailand," deemed his democratic ally despite the military's control over it, has stopped the reported official swoops on Burmese slums and the dispatch of refugees to the border over the past few days.

From August 3 on, according to rebel sources, the Burmese junta has been reinforcing "security" along the border. Over 10 battalions or 10,000 troops, along with artillery, are said to have been deployed in these areas. The junta would appear to have acted on its anticipation of a more serious show of resistance here than inside Burma on the anniversary.

Within the country, too, the well-known Generation 88 group has called for renewed protests. Indications are that the call is already finding a response on the university campuses, with students putting up prohibited posters and distributing pamphlets. While the junta cannot stop Burmese expatriates from raising the pro-democracy banner everywhere, it is trying its utmost to prevent a repetition of last year's rebellion.

The 2007 uprising, which began on August 15, was of a much smaller scale than 8888. But it was serious and significant enough to shake the army rulers. A big increase in junta-fixed fuel prices sparked off the revolt, in which hundreds were killed (though the official tally of the toll was only 13.) Sounds of solidarity emanated from Washington and Western capitals, but these have spelt no real succor to the Burmese people.

The junta has gone ahead with a fake "referendum" to foist a constitution on the country, which bars legendary Aung San Suu Kyi from contesting the elections promised to be held in 2010, on the ground of her marriage to a foreigner.

She and her National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in the last elections conducted in 1990. She has been under house detention for most of the time since then. The detention was extended last in May 2008, after all the Western proclamations in support of the pro-democracy movement.

No one is suggesting for a moment that Bush should have attempted a "regime change" here though no such vital stake as the Middle East oil was involved. But the junta may have just listened a little better if Washington and the West had sounded more sincere about their sanction.

Despite all the pro-democracy fervor of the First Family, for example, the US Senate approved new trade sanctions against Burma in the third week of July - only after excluding a provision that would have eliminated a large Chevron tax break. Burmese activists had supported the provision to pressure Chevron to sever its ties with the junta. Nyunt Than of the Burmese American Democratic Alliance did not mince words: "Unless Chevron is out of there, the United States doesn't have the moral authority to tell other countries to get out."

As for the rest if the West, the case of French oil company Total S. A. provides a convincing testimony to a callous policy that puts profits over the pro-democracy movement. In February 2006, when the company proudly announced that, by exploiting high oil prices, it had raised its fourth-quarter profits by 62 percent to $5.2 billion, protesters in London pointed out that the performance must really be attributed to exploitation of the Burmese people.

By its involvement in Burma's Yadana pipeline, Total is "involved in what is essentially the single largest foreign investment project in Burma, the single largest source of hard currency for the regime," according to Marco Simons of the Earth Rights International.

As for India, which had once conferred its highest civilian honor on Suu Kyi, it has been competing with others in collaboration with the junta. In July 2007, just before the last uprising, India's plans to sell advanced light helicopters (ALHs) to Burma were leaked. Outraged rights activists then pointed out that this made a mockery of the European Union's official embargo on sale of military goods to Burma. This, they said, was because the ALHs included "rocket launchers from Belgium, engines from France, brake systems from Italy, fuel tanks and gearboxes from Britain."

Trade between India and Burma is said to have expanded from $87.4 million in 1990-91 to over $600 million now. New Delhi is particularly proud of a project envisaging creation of a link between ports on India's east and the Sittwe port in western Burma. The $100 million Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Project is expected to provide an alternative route for transport of goods to northeast India, where New Delhi faces a long-festering problem of insurgency.

The 20th anniversary of 8888 promises only a tough and lengthy struggle for the people of Burma, one in which they cannot hope for real assistance from the world's best-advertised democracies. Whether the Burmese athletes win medals in Beijing or not, the pro-democracy movement can only look forward to the loneliness of the long-distance runner.


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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