Burma's true leaders

by Aung Zaw, The Guardian, September 29, 2007

The monks have bravely filled the vacuum created by the decapitation of the opposition movement

Bangkok, Thailand -- Burmese generals have long professed to be protecting and preserving Buddhism - claims that they sought to illustrate with frequent pilgrimages to the country's monasteries. Now these self-styled devotees have shown their true colours, ordering their forces into those same monasteries with murderous intent.

Their targets are Burma's venerated monks, who have played a prominent role in the vanguard of the independence struggle for many decades. In recent weeks they have again stepped in to fill the vacuum left by the imprisonment, resignation and exile of opposition members and activists forced by the country's ruling junta.

In the years since the uprising of 1988, the opposition movement in Burma has been decapitated. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, and Tin Oo, the party chairman and former commander in chief of the armed forces, remain under house arrest. Min Ko Naing - whose nom de guerre translates as "Conqueror of Kings" - was hastily thrown back into prison last month with many of his "88 Generation Students" group as they came back to the street to test the water.

With the leading pro-democracy voices summarily silenced, the political pongyi, or monks, decided that enough was enough. With Min Ko Naing and others incarcerated again at the notoriously brutal Insein prison, where they had spent so many years already, the monks bravely stepped up to broadcast the popular message.

They called for national reconciliation, for the release of political prisoners, and for relief for the impoverished mass of the Burmese people. As the world has witnessed, the regime's response was vicious. Words such as national reconciliation and compromise simply do not exist in the generals' vocabulary.

Dismally, the Burmese leaders still believe that they can count on China, India and Russia to prop up their regime. More dismally still, the events of recent days suggest that they are right to have this belief. Despite the condemnation of the civilised world, Burma's feudal warlords feel that they can rely on friends and opportunists keen to exploit the country's natural resources. They play one off against the other and struggle on.

All the while, the Burmese regime continues to kill and imprison innocent citizens, monks and students; to drive talented people into exile; and to ignore demands for democracy from inside and outside its borders.

The monks, activists and their supporters that have appeared on television screens the world over in recent days are the true heroes of this period of Burmese history. They have done their job, and now pray that the international community takes up their cause.

China, India and Burma's other allies must be told in the clearest possible terms that their support for the country's malevolent regime has its price. The United States, the European Union and regional powers should demonstrate that they are willing to get together and map out a proper strategy for Burma. The rulers of the country must be told in no uncertain terms that their strategy of blocking their ears to outside denunciation while brutally suppressing internal dissent simply cannot hold.

Official rhetoric, solemn condemnation and stern warnings are no longer enough. It is time for the regime's close allies to tell the junta that it's not going to survive in this game and that they are going to pull the plug.

Aung Zaw, a Burmese exile, is the editor of the Thailand-based Irrawaddy magazine