Burma: Junta Cracks Down on Protesters

Tom Malinowski
Washington Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch
Wednesday, September 26, 2007; 2:00 PM

Ending nine days of restraint, Burma's military rulers cracked down on protesting Buddhist monks Wednesday, with security forces firing warning shots, shooting tear gas canisters, swinging truncheons and making scores of arrests to suppress anti-government marchers.

The resort to violence, despite appeals for negotiations from around the world, suggested the military junta has decided to put an end to what has become the country's most serious political uprising since 1988, even at the price of more opprobrium from abroad.

Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, who has consulted with Bush administration officials on the situation, was online Wednesday, Sept. 26, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the very latest on the turmoil Burma.

A transcript follows.


Tom Malinowski: Hello everyone,

The growing demonstrations against the military government in Burma could be a turning point in that country's painful recent history. Because of the involvement of Burma's monks, the government is under tremendous pressure for the first time in many years. But there is also a real risk of significant violence. The response of Burma's neighbors, especially China, India, and the members of ASEAN, will be critical.


Washington, D.C.: Hi! I've got two questions. First, what is an American citizen able to do for the Burmese?

Second, what do you make of Mathieson's reports that the military junta is delusional? On the contrary, they may be superstitious, but they seem well aware that they are despised at home and abroad.


Tom Malinowski: I don't think the generals are delusional. They have a single-minded determination to stay in power, and their policies make sense when viewed from that perspective. But they are also increasingly isolated from their own people -- for example, they recently moved from the old capitol of Rangoon, the largest city in the country, to a new capitol city they are building from scratch in the jungle. They have little sense of how deeply they are hated, and probably lack the capacity to recognize that dialogue with the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is their only way out of this crisis.


Washington, D.C.: Was it a mistake for President Bush to announce the sanctions at the U.N.? Aren't there pretty strict sanctions already in place? It seemed to me to push the rulers into acting. I also fear that if it gets worse, the U.S. will not be doing anything else to help, and we'll be watching another Tiananmen.

Tom Malinowski: The U.S. already has some sanctions in place -- a ban on imports from Burma and on US investment in Burma. But what the administration has in mind now is different -- instead of a general sanction on Burma's economy, they are looking at highly targeted sanctions against key leaders, their families, and top financiers. If the U.S. could cause the bank accounts these people have in other countries (like Singapore and Thailand) to be frozen, that could have a significant impact on what the Burmese government does in the coming weeks. It would probably have been better if President Bush had not publicly announced this step until they had actually succeeded in identifying and freezing these accounts, but I think they are right to be focusing on this form of leverage.


Washington, D.C.: How fractured is the opposition? For example, I know formal and armed resistance groups from eastern Burma (Karen, Shan states, etc.) operate in that region. Do they communicate with the monks and other groups on Rangoon? Any hope of coordination among them? Also, to what extent is the global Burmese diaspora hindered by its dispersion? I've noticed statements from groups hailing from Oslo, D.C., Stockholm, London and Bangkok; are they coordinated at all?

Tom Malinowski: The opposition appears quite well organized, especially considering how hard it is to be organized in a society where the government tries to exercise absolute control (to the point that it bans any gathering of more than five people). One advantage the monks have is that they belong to a pre-existing and highly organized community that the government has never tried to shut down (much like, say, the Catholic Church in communist Poland -- except there are a lot more monks in Burma than there were priests in Poland). And the activists inside Burma have managed to maintain very tenuous links with activists in the Burmese diaspora. Thanks to those links, aided by new technologies such as cell phone cameras, we are now seeing what is happening in Burma.


Will Bush spread democracy to Myanmar?: Are there strategic resources/reasons for the USA to invade Burma to support the struggle for democracy? Why doesn't this valiant effort (actually started by their own citizens, not imposed from without) merit U.S. intervention and support?

I understand the country has rich resources, as well as a citizenry actually showing their longing for freedom .Thanks for your insights.

P.S. Unlike Chris Matthews's bombastic arrogant assertion that no one here cares, I think there are many progressives who care greatly about this movement and these brave peaceful warriors.

Tom Malinowski: I think there are strategic reasons, in addition to the obvious moral ones, to care about Burma. Burma is a major producer of narcotics, which the military government has done nothing to stamp out (indeed, the generals have long profited from allowing the trade to continue under their noses). It is a source of infectious diseases that spread beyond its borders, including AIDS and bird flu, in part because the government has almost completely neglected health care. Of course, Burma's neighbors have even stronger reasons to care about these problems than the US does; they are the ones who really need to step up now.


New York, N.Y.: Hello Tom, and thanks for sharing your thoughts and time.

Where does HRW stand on the issue of Burma tourism? (Not that this would probably be the best time for a visit...) I know there are conflicting viewpoints about whether tourism helps to support a repressive government or gives a beleaguered people a window to the outside world and a sense of hope. Just curious as to whether you have a party line on the matter.

Thanks again.

Tom Malinowski: We haven't taken a position for or against tourism. My own view is that it's helpful to maintain people-to-people contact with ordinary Burmese, and thoughtful, independent travelers can contribute to that goal. But people who spend a lot of money on package tours and who spend a lot of money on government-organized activities probably do more harm than good. As for me, I wouldn't go to Burma for pleasure. I would only go if I had a serious purpose.


Washington, D.C. : One of the real differences in this situation compared to 1988 is the role of the civilian USDA (Union Solidarity and Development Association), the regime's version of the "Hitler Youth." They have been deployed to try to deter protesters by roughing them up, letting the regime hold back on full use of military force. Surprisingly, many Burmese, including monks, have fought back at the USDA and hunted some members down in their homes. This may presage a growing willingness of Burmese civilians to resist government pressure, but also raises the possibility of more generalized chaotic violence. How do you assess the role of the USDA in the current crisis?

Tom Malinowski: The creation of the USDA has been one of the most dangerous developments in Burma in recent years. It is the regime's attempt to build a popular base for it's thuggish rule, and to create a loyal, paramilitary force that will do its dirty work. Many people have suspected that the military's long-term plan was to transform the USDA into a ruling political party, and that the "democracy road map" the military was promoting would lead to that result. That said, who knows how the members of the USDA will react to being, essentially, excommunicated from the Buddhist faith by the country's monks, or what they will do if they sense that the military's days are numbered. This is not an ideologically committed group; they are basically bullies who have aligned themselves with those in power so that they can do as they please. If they sense the ship sinking, they may not want to go down with it.


Los Angeles, CA: Hi Tom --

Although there are currently sanctions in place against Burma, does any U.S.-Burma investment or trade take place? What about the oil pipeline that was developed by Unocal some years ago?

Tom Malinowski: There is no longer any US investment in Burma. UNOCAL was allowed to stay even after the sanctions passed, but they have since sold their share in the pipeline project. Imports from Burma are also banned, though some may still trickle in. America's main remaining economic leverage lies in the connections between the US banking system and banks in Asia where the government and its supporters stash their money. That is presumably what the administration is looking at as it considers new sanctions.


Washington, D.C.: China is concerned about Burmese officials cracking down violently on the protesters, and is presumably taken steps behind the scenes to pressure them against doing so. But is China also concerned about a successful revolution that would create a functional democracy in Burma, perhaps giving impetus to another Chinese democracy movement?

Tom Malinowski: That's exactly China's dilemma. They are not likely to support a democratic transition for the sake of promoting democracy; on the contrary. But they also don't want instability on their border. They don't want their own image to suffer from being associated with another massacre like Tiananmen on the eve of the Beijing Olympics. And they should be concerned about the growing resentment of China among ordinary Burmese.


Washington, D.C.: What are the main demands of the protesters?

Tom Malinowski: The monks have demanded that the government apologize for using violence against them, that it release all political prisoners, and enter a dialogue with the opposition. It's important to note that they are not, thus far, demanding that the government step down; what they want is for both sides to work out their differences and settle on a way forward through dialogue.


Fayetteville, N.C.: An acquaintance has been receiving calls regarding cash donations for the monks/protestors. What are the legalities, in light of the sanctions, of supporters in the U.S. accepting these donations and forwarding them to help the people sustain their protests?

Tom Malinowski: There is no prohibition on humanitarian aid to Burma.


Fairfax, Va.: Is the situation there still volatile? Are they still arresting people and shooting guns today?

Tom Malinowski: It's now the middle of the night there, so things are quiet, to our knowledge at least. But during the day that just ended, there was at least some shooting at demonstrators, and there may well be more tomorrow if and when people come out on the streets again. The military is also continually trying to hunt down and arrest those opposition activists still in hiding.


McLean, Va.: Do you think the Burmese government will buckle under with the U.S. sanctions and the situation for the monks improve? Will they be intimidated by the U.S. or other countries who take a stand?

Tom Malinowski: The situation is very unpredictable. On the one hand, the monks are an extremely powerful force. Ordinary Burmese appear to be losing their fear. And the generals may be losing their external sources of political and financial support. One never knows at what point such governments simply lose their ability to control things -- will their troops continue to follow orders? Will the military remain united? On the other hand, the generals have a demonstrated capacity to use extreme violence to stay in power. Things could get far worse before they get better.


Tom Malinowski: Thank you all for a very interesting discussion. I am signing off now.


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