By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 23, 2007
The United States yesterday condemned the arrests of 13 prominent Burmese dissidents this week by the military junta after a series of demonstrations against sharp increases in the price of fuel. The crackdown appears to mark an ominous new challenge to the administration's efforts to foster greater freedoms in the Southeast Asian nation, a push that has faltered despite sustained personal attention by President Bush.
"The United States calls for the immediate release of these activists and for an end of the regime's blatant attempt to intimidate and silence those who are engaged in peaceful promotion of democracy and human rights in Burma," said Gonzalo Gallegos, the State Department's acting spokesman. "We call on the regime to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the leaders of Burma's democracy movement and ethnic minority groups and to make tangible steps toward a transition to civilian democratic rule."
The protests began after the military dictatorship last week, without warning, increased the price of gasoline by two-thirds, doubled the price of diesel and quintupled the cost of canisters of gas. Analysts said the increases are devastating for the country's desperately poor population, and are puzzling because Burma's vast natural resources include large fields of gas and oil. But the government has kept prices for fuel, especially diesel, artificially low for many years.
Reports yesterday from Rangoon, the largest city and former capital, said that armed police took up positions across the city alongside truckloads of men from the army's Union Solidarity and Development Association. Many were carrying brooms and shovels, pretending to be road sweepers. Despite the arrests, 100 people staged an hour-long march before being dispersed.
Burma, also known as Myanmar, is regarded as one of the world's most repressive nations. The National League for Democracy, the party of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory in the county's last elections, in 1990, which the military leadership refused to recognize. She has been confined to house arrest or in prisons on and off since then.
In an unusual move, the government publicized yesterday's arrests, naming dissidents including Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Min Zeya, Ko Jimmy, Ko Pyone Cho, Arnt Bwe Kyaw and Ko Mya Aye -- leaders of the "88 Generation," a 1988 student-led uprising against longtime dictator Ne Win. Ne Win resigned that year in face of the protests, but the military junta that replaced him violently crushed the uprising.
"All in all, their agitation to cause civil unrest was aimed at undermining peace and security of the State and disrupting the ongoing National Convention," the government newspaper New Light of Myanmar reported, listing charges that carry long prison terms.
Min Ko Naing, Myanmar's second-most-prominent political figure, after Suu Kyi, was released in November 2004 after 15 years in jail. He was arrested in September for four more months.
Bush and first lady Laura Bush have become personally engaged in the cause of Burmese freedom. The United States has long had tough sanctions on Burma. But in October 2005, the president spent 50 minutes meeting in the Oval Office with a 24-year-old refugee named Charm Tong, prompting Bush to begin jawboning Asian leaders about stepping up the pressure against the Burmese government.
Last September, the United States scored a diplomatic victory when, after months of lobbying, the U.N. Security Council for the first time added Burma to its permanent agenda, on the grounds that the junta's behavior threatened regional peace and security. But in January, Russia and China vetoed a U.S.-proposed resolution that urged Burma to ease repression and release political prisoners.
In June, in a rare high-level session, a senior State Department official met with two Burmese ministers in Beijing at the request of the Burmese government, signaling a slight easing of the administration's hard line.
Michael J. Green, formerly the president's top adviser on Asia, said the administration's sanctions and pressure at the United Nations "have been necessary but are not sufficient," because "each of Burma's neighbors has a different Burma policy and they tend to cancel each other." India and China, in particular, compete for influence in resource-rich Burma and have showered it with hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid.
Meanwhile, he said, the United Nations has taken a "value-neutral" approach that has yielded several visits by Ibrahim Gambari, the U.N. undersecretary general for political affairs, but "has not had any effect at all." On his last trip, Gambari did not even meet with members of the 88 Generation, although, at great risk, they had appealed for a meeting.
"Burma is like the crazy drunk at the end of the street," Green said. "Each of the neighbors says something to him individually, but the neighbors never get together to deal with him."