Tipping Point in Burma

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

YESTERDAY brought momentous and awe-inspiring news from one of the world's most oppressed nations. Defying their military government, tens of thousands of Burmese marched through the center of their largest city, Rangoon, as well as in more than two dozen other towns and cities. Estimates of the crowd in Rangoon ranged from 50,000 to 100,000 -- by far the largest protest since a student-led uprising in 1988. The new movement, led by Buddhist monks, has slowly mushroomed from a protest against price increases and police brutality into a full-fledged democratic uprising, thanks to the unresponsiveness of the regime and the astonishing courage of the monks.

But Burma is not the Philippines or Indonesia, and yesterday's events were a cause for fear as well as joy among its long-suffering democratic opposition. The hope that a country of 52 million could imitate the "people power" revolutions of its neighbors is tempered by the awareness that the first instinct of the ruling junta will be to repeat the bloodbath with which it crushed the 1988 uprising -- massacres in which an estimated 3,000 Burmese died.

Whether that happens may depend in large measure on what the generals hear from the outside world in the next day or two. So far, the messages have been mixed. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke out against the regime on Sunday, and officials said that President Bush would support the demands for change and single out top generals for sanctions in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly today. The secretary general of the Association of South East Asian Nations, which counts Burma as a member, also urged the regime to avoid violence, as did the European Union, the Philippines and Singapore. But little had been heard publicly by last night from the governments whose words matter most -- India, Japan and especially China, whose investments and diplomatic support have propped up the dictatorship for years.

Some Burma experts speculate that Beijing may be quietly restraining the generals from cracking down. But silent Chinese diplomacy and familiar U.S. denunciations are not likely to be enough. What's needed is forceful multilateral action making clear that the time has come for the regime to negotiate a political settlement with the country's democrats, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi -- coupled with explicit warnings of consequences if violence is used against peaceful protests.

The U.N. General Assembly offers a ready venue for concerted action by Asian and Western governments. Ms. Rice has said that she would like to see the group of countries that now negotiates with North Korea -- the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China -- evolve into a regional security structure; if so, this would be a great moment for it to collectively address the situation in Burma. Mr. Bush should make it clear that the United States will hold China responsible if there are massacres in Rangoon -- and that the fallout could tarnish the 2008 Olympics. One way or another, Burma's rulers must get the message that a powerful international alliance stands with those who are bravely parading across the country.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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