Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Burma: Burma's generals as entrenched as ever

Burma housing

Burma's military government has been in power for more than four decades. While most Burmese are poor, the country's top military elite and their friends have become rich, fueling widespread resentment. Those feelings have grown more serious in the days since the military crushed anti-government demonstrations in September. Yet despite their unpopularity, Burma's generals are as entrenched as ever. Rory Byrne and Wido Schlichting report on how the country's military stays in power.

Burma is one of the most isolated countries in the world. Democratic observers say the military government uses fear and repression to maintain its grip on power. Opposition is not tolerated.

In September of last year, the government sharply increased the price of fuel and tens of thousands of Buddhist monks and civilians took to the streets in pro-democracy protests. Among them was Hlaing Moe Than.

When the military crushed the protests, Hlaing Moe Than escaped into Thailand. He had been jailed and tortured many times in the past. He says, "The military junta can do as they like - they are above the law. Our people don't get the protection of the law, you know - they can arrest anybody without a warrant. They can detain persons in an interrogation center."

The military regime has forbidden freedom of expression from opposition groups. Only pro-government news media is allowed.

Zaw Min, a Burmese pro-democracy activist living in Bangkok, describes the government rules and tactics, he says, "They rule the country for many years based on the fear of the citizen. That's why they use so many kinds of oppressive measures on certain citizens. If you want to go against the government you are put in prison, arrested, tortured, even you disappear - nobody knows."

Prices for fuel have had a drastic effect on the costs of transportation, cooking oil and food. Most people in Burma earn less than a dollar a day. But the military elite and their friends live in luxury.

Oo Win Naing is an opposition politician living in Rangoon. He has been jailed many times for his views. "There are lots of people who are getting rich during this military regime period. For those kind of people they have become very, very strong supporters to the government because they are gaining things, they are gaining lots of things," Naing said.

The military also controls the country's abundant natural resources. The roads through Burma's forests are filled with logging trucks. Many people in Burma and environmental groups say the military charges thousands of dollars in fees for each truck.

In addition, precious stones from Burmese mines earn the government hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

A gem auction in Rangoon recently raised more than $300 million from foreign dealers, most of them from China.

Some human rights groups’ say more than 40 percent of the government's budget goes to the army. Some of that money is spent on fighting ethnic minority rebels.

Despite international demands that the government begin reform and talks with opposition leaders, most notably Aung San Suu Kyi, there is still no sign the generals are ready to give up power.

But as many people slip further into poverty, human rights groups and activists say resentment to military rule is growing deeper every day.

By Rory Byrne and Wido Schlichting
Published with the permission of Voice of America