Bangladesh has its own illegal immigration problem. The country plays host to approximately 200,000 refugees from the bordering country of Burma. The refugees belong to the Rohingya minority, a persecuted Muslim population who are being methodically ethnically cleansed by Burma’s ruling military junta. They live in Bangladesh under desperate conditions, battling for scarce jobs and resources in the already desperately poor south eastern region of Bangladesh. It is just one of the silent tragedies of the forgotten people of Burma.
Burma, or Myanmar as the ruling military junta would like to be called, is one of the most brutally repressed countries in the world. It has been under military rule since 1962. An impoverished country of 50 million people, Burma boasts an army of over 400,000 active personnel. It’s yearly military budget stands at an estimated 7 billion dollars and is greater than Pakistan, Iran and North Korea. Burma has the 12th largest standing military in the world and spends an astounding 19% of its annual gross domestic product on the military. While the junta leaders live in luxury the rest of the population lives on less than $1 a day. Burma is the most corrupt nation on Earth.
The Burmese military is at war with its own people. It is so fearful of its own people that it has moved the capital of the country. In 2005 the military junta built a new capital, Naypyidaw, about 320 kilometers north of the former capital, and Burma’s largest city, of Rangoon. Naypyidaw is secretive and under tight seal. Cell phone networks do not work there and the civil servants are housed in military built apartments while the junta live in luxury villas. Pictures of Naypyidaw are hard to come by.
On September 6th the military junta in Burma declared that General Maung Aye, second in command in Burma, was postponing his upcoming visit to Bangladesh where he was expected to expand on the new found common ground with the military rulers of Bangladesh. This was the first signal from the junta that they were anticipating the August protests over high fuel prices to get significantly worse. Ten days later, on September 16, thousands of revered Burmese monks joined the protesters on the streets of Buma’s cities. The monks led the protesters to the doorstep of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s home, where she has been held under house arrest and solitary isolation on and off for nearly 2 decades. The legitimate prime minister of Burma, and the embodiment of hope for the Burmese people, came out briefly to pray with the monks and the protesters. It was the first time the Burmese people saw her in four years.
However, as always hope was short-lived for the brave people of Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi was whisked away to a notorious prison in the Burmese interior and the Burmese military began the slaughter. In 1988, after similar protests, the military slaughtered 3000 citizens. This time the military claims to have only killed 10 people. The actual numbers are likely to be much higher. In 1988 the military junta claimed that only a handful of protesters were killed.
Today the Burmese people are cut off from the rest of the world. The internet, the lifeline connecting the Burmese people to the world, has been severed by the junta. The streets of Rangoon have been cleared of protesters and the blood has been cleaned from the pavements – protesters have been "disappeared" and the monks have been locked away in their monasteries. Into this surreal quiet arrived Ibrahim Gambari, the UN special envoy for Burma. In a "surprise" move the junta allowed Mr. Gambari to visit with Aung San Suu Kyi for about an hour.
This is familiar ground for Mr. Gambari. Last year he visited Burma twice and was similarly allowed to meet the Nobel laureate. On his return from his first trip in May 2006 Mr. Gambari penned an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune entitled "A crack in the Burmese door":
For a number of years now, the military leaders of Myanmar, formerly called Burma, have seemed impervious to international calls for democratic reform. A special UN envoy for Myanmar, Rezali Ismail, was prohibited for more than two years from even stepping foot in the country.
Last month, something seemed to change. Myanmar’s locked door popped open a small crack.
It is premature after one brief mission to come to any conclusions about the extent and depth of Myanmar’s current opening. Sustained engagement may be the only way to arrive at a fuller assessment of the prospects for democratization, development and reconciliation.
It will, of course, be up to the Security Council to decide on a course of action. Myanmar is hardly alone as a country for which the international community, in trying to influence the course of events, finds itself debating the relative merits of diplomacy versus pressure,or a combination of both.
Though some may be tempted to lose patience with the diplomatic track, I believe we have no option but to persist.
Nothing changed. The world moved on and the Burmese people were left to contend with their oppressors on their own.
Unlike previous visits this time Mr. Gambari has been unable to meet with the leaders of the military junta, including Senior General Than Shwe. This may be significant. There are already unconfirmed but credible reports that some generals, including Than Shwe, have sent their families abroad. It may signal a coup within the junta or fear within the junta that the protests may lead to the regime’s collapse. However, in a country where the military controls everything the prospects of freedom for the Burmese people are dim. If freedom comes it is likely to come at the cost of significant Burmese blood.
Burma’s two main backers, India and China, continue to feed its oversized military in order to squeeze a few extra dollars from the already impoverished Burmese people. While China and India continue to back the junta, there is little hope of a bright future for the Burmese people. While the sight of saffron-clad monks has captivated the world’s attention for this week, if the junta’s crackdown is successful the world will forget and move on once again.
Mr. Gambari will likely go home empty handed, save a token visit with Aung San Suu Kyi. The endless UN visits will continue as the junta appeases the foreigners by returning to the status quo. Mr. Bush will cynically thump his chest about military oppression in Burma while he offers full support to the military regime next door. China and India will continue to profit from the subjugation of the Burmese people.
Nonetheless, we who care about the brave Burmese people will not forget their plight. Even as the world moves on.
[Sign the MoveOn.org petition to add your name to supporters of the brave Burmese people.]