Friday, May 30, 2008

Post-cyclone Politics

Post-cyclone Politics

Friday, May 30, 2008

When Cyclone Nargis ravaged Burma, it did not spare political prisoners. The notorious Insein Prison, where hundreds of political prisoners are locked up, was one of the hardest-hit sites in Rangoon.

The wind uprooted trees, rain flooded prison cells, and electricity was cut. Many prisoners, wet and cold, began screaming in the dark. The storm’s wrath triggered a riot and guards started shooting. Criminal prisoners in one ward set the building on fire, causing smoke to fill neighboring prison cells.

Suffering from an eye-infection, the most prominent jailed student leader, Min Ko Naing, was choking from the smoke and his eyes were burning. Some of his fellow inmates had passed out. A few sympathetic prison guards managed to push aside fallen trees that blocked the entrances to the cells and moved the political prisoners to the prison’s hospital.

"Min Ko Naing and many other political prisoners in the cells could have died from smoke if the rescue had been delayed," said Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner who heads the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma (AAPP).

There are no official figures for how many prisoners died and were injured during the havoc, but the AAPP believes at least 36 prisoners were shot to death.

In the cyclone’s aftermath, many political prisoners who had family living in the storm-stricken areas learned they had lost family members. One political prisoner, Thiha Thet Zin, was told that eight of nine family members, including his parents, grandmother, a son and siblings, were swept away with the storm. His wife was the only survivor.

In fact, what happened in Insein Prison during the killer storm could be seen as a microcosm of Burma's political landscape.Since Cyclone Nargis, which claimed 134,000 deaths and at least 1 million homeless, the world has seen that the unwillingness of the Burmese junta’s disaster response is antamount to a “crime against humanity."

The cyclone has placed the country in a defining moment with inevitable political consequences, but just how events may play out is anybody’s guess.

"Things will not return to a status quo," said Priscilla Clapp, a US diplomat who served as Chief of Mission in Burma from 1999-2002.While the military tries to exploit the world's generosity, it will also ensure that the cyclone will not have any effect on its "road map to a discipline-flourishing democracy.""The rush to complete the referendum and declare victory was a defensive move, in recognition that the whole scheme could be derailed by the storm if it was not wrapped up immediately," said Clapp.

Unbelievably, the junta claimed that the constitutional referendum was approved by 92 percent of the voters. "I think the whole business of the ‘road map’ is no longer relevant in Burmese politics after the cyclone," said Moe Thee Zun, a well-known former student leader. "The most important thing we need to watch is how Nargis will test the army's loyalty to the leadership and expose dissension within army."

Some observers, perhaps wishfully, believe that the regime's failed response could weaken the junta, especially Snr-Gen Than Shwe. Significantly, the junta’s current public failure follows its ruthless crackdown on the "Saffron Revolution" last September.

"We have heard that there are considerable tensions within the military," said David Steinberg, a Burma expert at Georgetown University. "But I don't know whether the tension is strong enough to split the military and at what level it exists, and whether it is a high enough level to threaten the present leadership. If change comes, it has to come from within the military itself."
Many military observers doubt that Than Shwe would be challenged by his immediate subordinates. Change after his death is a more likely scenario, they say. However, many opposition leaders prefer to place their hopes for change on public actions. They say that unless a mass movement challenges the corrupt military leadership, divisions in the military will not surface.

"Whether or not the military will take sides with the public is the defining issue in Burmese politics," said Po Than Gyaung, a spokesman for the Communist Party of Burma. "A mass movement is the most likely trigger for change within the military."

However, there are few public signs that the junta has been weakened by either the people’s uprising or the cyclone’s aftermath. The regime sits on more than $4 billion in foreign exchange reserves and earns more than $150 million a month in natural gas sales. Observers say it is unlikely any government money will be used for humanitarian aid or reconstruction. The regime donated US $ 4.5 million immediately after the cyclone, but the money largely came from donations by regime supporters.

On the other hand, Burmese civil society clearly has been weakened, both physically and psychologically. The economy will suffer for an extended period of time. On the Cyclone Nargis frontlines, many ordinary citizens responded to the call for aid, but their efforts cannot replace the need for a professionally organized, long-term relief effort. A significant portion of the country could experience food shortages, say UN agencies.

Though people are angry with the junta, the grip of fear appears to be stronger than anger and any attempt at mass action in the near future most likely would end up in abortive protests and violence. In addition, the role of the opposition will continue to be marginalized as long as leading figures such as Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Ko Naing remain in detention or unless a new community-based leadership emerges out of the cyclone relief efforts.

The prospect of growing community-based leadership is a possibility, but it is not likely to yield any immediate political impact. More importantly, such new initiatives can be nipped in the bud by the regime's repression and intimidation.

At the same time, the UN has proven to be unresponsive to the idea of its "responsibility to protect" principle.

The West will continue to champion the cause of democracy in Burma in moral and rhetorical terms, but it is likely to act only in the most practical terms, relying largely on cooperation and pressure from China and Asean.

Meanwhile, the regime clearly sees the likelihood of international humanitarian aid as a "jackpot,” and will try to include only enough relief workers to keep the flow of aid and reconstruction money coming.

The fate of the Burmese people and the political prisoners in Insein Prison remain in limbo. While there are no immediate signs of political storms brewing, we know the water is always rough and there are few safe harbors in Burma.

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