While the world has its eyes on China, Tibet and the Olympic torch relay, Myanmar has almost been forgotten, although human rights violations continue to take place and the junta is still cracking down hard on any form of dissent.
Myanmar Buddhist monks protesting against the military government in September 2007
Just recently in Myanmar, away from the world’s attention, forty people were told they had to go to jail because they had participated in peaceful protests against the military junta last September. The New York-based Human Rights Watch says that the sentence was handed down to forty demonstrators, including seven monks.
Some were reportedly sentenced just because they gave water to monks during the mass protests. Nobody knows how long they will spend in prison.
Since the peaceful protests in late summer last year, the military junta has come down very strongly on monks and other critics of the regime. Some dissidents have been able to escape the crackdown by trudging through the jungle on foot in the direction of Thailand. But many of them don’t want to stay in the border region. Many of the monks want to return to their monasteries. Yet they know what awaits them there and they have no hopes from the junta.
Calls for resistance
This monk argues for resistance: "If anyone believes in the junta’s game this regime will last until we’re all dead. The whole country has to stand up and fight against the unjust leadership. We ourselves were beaten and some of our abbots were beaten to death or shot dead. People were murdered on the streets and we are all suffering from this. I can’t express how much. I can only think about how to get enough support. It’s up to us -- the people. The people have to make sure they attain their rights."
Last November, Paolo Pinheiro, the UN special rapporteur on human rights, was allowed to enter Myanmar for the first time in four years. He went to find out exactly how many people had been killed or detained during the junta’s violent crackdown on September’s mass protests. In March of this year, however, he was refused an entry visa for another visit. Pinheiro wants the pressure on the junta to be maintained:
"The international community is supposed to do this to honour these young people, those young women, the students that assume enormous risks in going to the streets to participate, to fight for the freedom of assembly, the freedom of opinion and I think this is a moment for the international community to show some competence in terms of addressing the issues that the protesters were asking for. If you want to achieve some progress in Myanmar, we can’t have a cacophony of policies by member states, we need to have coordination."
New protests expected
Many expect new protests this year. On 8th August -- when the Olympic Games begin in Beijing -- Myanmar will unofficially remember the bloody crackdown of the democracy movement twenty years ago. Just as relentless, the junta killed an estimated 3,000 people during that first bloody crackdown.
Dissidents and monks are looking for alternative ways to continue the struggle for democracy. This monk says the fight should be peaceful, however: "We’re thinking about a kind of guerrilla movement but also about open protest. We don’t want a people’s militia or other militant groupings in our country. So we want to organise ourselves with the people and the students. It would be better if we didn’t have any military leaders in Myanmar."
The junta has announced a referendum for next month in which voters are supposed to give their support to their proposed constitution. But opposition groups have called on the population to reject it, saying it will only serve to further consolidate the junta’s power.