Is there an end to Myanmarese agony?

Source: The Jakarta Post

By Ati Nurbaiti

Criticism continued last week against the Myanmar military junta which went on with referendum plans in areas unaffected by the deadly cyclone. But at least one citizen said he was eager to make his mark on policy-making.

We don’t know whether he voted “yes” or “no” on the new amendment to the constitution. Rigging was reportedly widespread, with voters saying they only had to sign ballot sheets already marked “yes” , according to an e-mail sent Saturday to The Jakarta Post.

Yet at least in one town a voter said there was no intimidation; some even confided that they would vote no, the source from Myanmar said.

A “yes” in the referendum, critics say, would only endorse clauses in the draft constitution that further justify a prolonging of the junta’s power. A no vote, some say, would just as equally provide an excuse for the regime to stay in power for at least another decade, to watch over preparations for a new draft constitution.

People in Myanmar are not entirely powerless or apathetic. Despite heavy censorship dozens of newspapers and magazines can be found on newsstands, though mostly on soccer, astrology, religion and gossip. “People are highly literate, they really want to know other news,” a business journalist in Yangon said.

Satellite dishes are easily visible; although the government tried to raise the price of satellite dishes, tea shop owners must compete with each other to lure patrons hungry for the latest soccer matches. The same is true for Internet stalls. Sensitive stories will still reach the public, reporters say, if needs be through poetry and fiction, comedy and caricatures.

Using long-established networks the media, mostly outside the country such as the Democratic Voice of Burma radio and television, manage to get much-needed information to Myanmarese working or hiding overseas.

Journalists say it is this public curiosity that helps to egg on the press; a few independent media outlets exist though most are based in Thailand, India and other countries.

The junta rulers managed to damage their reputation further by hindering the channeling of aid to cyclone survivors. The UN estimates one million people are homeless, while a food crisis looms as the expected harvest is now under water in the Irrawaddy delta, the hardest hit area housing a number of towns including the capital, Yangon.

Is the end near for the generals, as some critics say?

It does seem the end may come sooner than earlier thought, judging from leaked news of survivors’ frustration over their government’s inaction.

But no one is offering a time period — the world is watching with disbelief as aid struggles to reach 300,000 survivors one week after Cyclone Nargis hit.

Like Indonesia, decades of authoritarian rule has led to a largely politically powerless populace — and Indonesia’s Soeharto was much more liberal than the reclusive junta in Myanmar.

On top of a weak civil society, dissidents acknowledge, there is a lack of unity. The country’s minorities, the various non-Burmese ethnic groups, have been fighting for autonomy for 60 years, since British rule ended in Myanmar. The insurgency provides fertile ground for divide-and-rule tactics by the junta.

“I fear a civil war when the junta is gone,” a former political prisoner in the border town of Mae Sot told the Post, requesting anonymity.

So who would run the country in the absence of the junta?

“It is only the tatmadaw that owns the fire brigades,” said a local journalist, referring to the army. “Their duty is to protect the army first.”

He was responding to questions about reports the fire brigade only appeared 24 hours after the cyclone hit the capital.

The most solid civilian institution would appear to be the monasteries. Cyclone survivors sought shelter, food and comfort from the monks, who cooked for them and helped clear away the debris.

But many of the monks have fled since the “saffron revolution” late last year, an activist said.

Students are always referred to as a source of bravery among civilians. The 1988 generation involved in protests that led to at least 3,000 dead has inspired marches over the years — the most recent was late last year, triggered by economic hardship.

The perception of ethnic differences further weakens unity in society.

And millions of Myanmarese are further powerless as they are in exile and stateless, and constantly watching over their shoulder fearing arrest.

The “saffron revolution” of last September and October gladdened the hearts of many from Myanmar who saw increased international awareness of the situation in their country following the crackdown. But they remain realistic; they understand the hurdles they face, not least the perceived absence of support from neighbors.

“ASEAN should stop supporting the junta,” one of the monks said.

Many wonder what difference this cyclone will bring.

Will widespread resentment eventually end the rule of the junta?

From a monastery in the Mae La refugee camp on the border, another monk has a rather different suggestion.

“The soldiers, the students and the monks are the pillars of Burma society,” he said. “One day, the soldiers will have a change of heart.”

Whether the cyclone will bring that change of heart, much more is needed to reconcile such strange bedfellows.

Even in despair, one Yangon resident said, “The Burmese always have hope.”

The above article was first published in “Jakarta Post” on 12 May 2008.

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