Exiles try to keep pressure on Burmese rulers

Urge monks to regroup in protest

Kowvida, a 26-year-old monk who fled Burma in October, said anger among monks in Burma is building, not ebbing. Kowvida, a 26-year-old monk who fled Burma in October, said anger among monks in Burma is building, not ebbing. (Blaine Harden/Washington Post)
Email|Print| Text size + By Blaine Harden
Washington Post / December 9, 2007

MAE SOT, Thailand - Desperate to maintain the momentum of their challenge to military rule in Burma, opposition leaders in the border town of Mae Sot are working with networks of supporters to get monks to return to the streets in protest, to push foreign governments to impose tougher sanctions, and to persuade ethnic militias to resume guerrilla attacks.

The leaders in the town say they believe that the generals who run Burma gave them a priceless political gift in September by ordering soldiers to attack Buddhist monks. "We have to thank them for their stupidity," said Maung Maung, secretary general of the National Council of the Union of Burma, which is based in the hill town of Mae Sot along the Thailand-Burma border and is the main umbrella group for exiled politicians and ethnic leaders.

Images of soldiers clubbing barefoot monks in saffron robes focused world attention on Burma's often-ignored military dictatorship, and prodded the generals to begin talking to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate and opposition leader whose party trounced them in a 1990 election and who is under house arrest in Rangoon. It also energized a nationwide cadre of angry monks, potent agents of grass-roots change in a Buddhist nation where the number of monks (about 400,000) rivals the number of soldiers.

Still, the generals' public relations gift loses value with each passing day, Burmese opposition figures say.

Without more "bone-breaking" pressure on the generals, talks with Suu Kyi will devolve into an empty delaying game, said Maung Maung. More than a dozen senior leaders of the opposition who were interviewed, including longtime members of Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, echoed his comments.

To ratchet up pressure, opposition leaders said they are urging monks inside Burma to regroup and join in more mass protests with students and workers. They are pleading with Western countries to stiffen economic sanctions and to donate cash to support political activity inside Burma, which the generals call Myanmar.

Opposition leaders including several recently exiled supporters of Suu Kyi, a proponent of nonviolence, are also urging Burma's armed ethnic minorities to prepare for a unified guerrilla conflict against the government.

"Armed struggle has to be part of the pressure," said Khun Myint Tun, a longtime supporter of Suu Kyi. "Something needs to happen soon to take advantage of the September momentum."

Some of that momentum seems to be slipping away.

The military is continuing to raid monasteries and arrest civilians, as it has since the late September crackdown on protesters. Suu Kyi remains under house arrest and cut off from supporters.

China, Thailand, and India have not substantially changed their economic dealings with the Burma military, buying electricity, natural gas, oil, and timber worth an estimated $2 billion a year.

Rangoon is said to be quiet and tense. Since the crackdown, sandbag bunkers have been built on many of its streets. Soldiers often stand around the bunkers, but it is now uncommon to see monks in the city, according to Shari Villarosa, charge d'affaires for the US Embassy in Burma.

"You can't overestimate the power of fear to keep things from happening," Villarosa said.

In Mae Sot, newly exiled monks, baby-faced army deserters, and ethnic minorities rub shoulders with aging politicians who have been waiting for decades for something - anything - that would send the Burmese generals packing.

The September marches obviously fell short of that goal. But veterans of the opposition movement agree that the monks' protests revealed significant weaknesses in the intelligence arm of the military junta.

After the demonstrations, the military detained more than 3,000 people, holding many in makeshift detention centers. Individuals released from detention in recent weeks have described their interrogators as confused, inept, and sometimes willing to accept bribes to release detainees. They often argued among themselves in front of detainees.

Diplomats and analysts have traced the breakdown of military intelligence to the abrupt dismissal in 2004 of General Khin Nyunt, then prime minister and the longtime head of intelligence. His firing and arrest, on order of Senior General Than Shwe, the head of state, coincided with the firing of thousands of intelligence officers.

"The intelligence operation used to be very professional, all the way down to the lower ranks," said David Tharckabaw, a leader of the Karen National Union, which represents the Karen ethnic minority. "Now it has become amateurish."

The crackdown in September differed from previous episodes of military brutality inside Burma in that it was captured in photographs and on video, and was seen around the world within hours.

This was no accident, according to opposition leaders here in Mae Sot. "We had about 200 people inside the country trained to take pictures with digital and video cameras," said Maung Maung. "We also trained them to transmit using satellite phones and Internet cafes. They were on the front lines when the demonstration started."

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