United Nations

Edge of despair

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2007, 12:00am


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Hope isn't a friend Win Hlaing can afford to give up on. It sustained him when he was a student leader in the 1988 protests in Myanmar that left an estimated 3,000 dead; it sustained him when he won a seat in the 1990 elections which the military junta refused to recognise; and it sustained him through the 10 subsequent years he spent behind bars in a squalid Yangon jail.

It supported him when, just six months ago, he left his wife and 17-year-old daughter to flee Myanmar and join the struggle with the exiled National League for Democracy in Thailand, knowing that while the military remained in control he could not return.

Win Hlaing was in the Thai border town of Mae Sot on a black Friday a week ago, when 300km away in his home city peaceful demonstrations were being crushed, with monks and civilians beaten and shot. It was clear that even hope could sometimes be a fickle friend.

Like many of his compatriots, he found himself watching from the sidelines as Myanmar endured its bloodiest week in almost 20 years.

A trip to the Myanmese border town of Myawadi reveals a people filled with anger and frustration towards a regime that had forced up food and fuel prices, apparently with no concern for the impact it would have on the impoverished population. And like Win Hlaing, they were convinced that only external pressure or intervention could bring change.

However, the visit in recent days of United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari might have done more harm than good, 42-year-old Win Hlaing said in a furtively arranged meeting at a friend's house in Thailand, 4km from the Myanmar border. Even in Thailand, Win Hlaing and his fellow political exiles were wary of government informers.

'We worry in our hearts that the military junta will abuse this visit,' he said. 'They will pretend to listen to the international community and then, when the envoy goes home, there will be a brutal response against the people. They will use their soldiers and their informers to round up the rest of the protesters and crush their opponents. They will take their revenge on the people and do whatever they can to ensure their survival.'

Win Hlaing's anxiety is no doubt sharpened by the knowledge that he has left his family behind in Yangon. 'Of course, I am afraid for my wife and daughter but my brothers and my family are protecting them,' he said. 'It has been very difficult to communicate because all the phone lines and the internet lines have been down. I haven't spoken to my family for two days now.'

As reports make it clear that the army has regained almost total control of the streets of Yangon, Win Hlaing prefers to focus his attention on the unconfirmed reports of army unrest trickling out of the capital. 'People are willing to die for this cause and the soldiers realise this,' he said. 'We don't need guns. We only need to make sacrifices and we will win.

'People have been standing in front of the soldiers and baring their chests, daring them to shoot. Some soldiers are turning against each other. Ten miles [16km] from downtown Rangoon [Yangon], one unit fought against another when soldiers refused to open fire on citizens. It is a very hopeful development.'

It is also probably an isolated incident - if it happened at all. The army appeared to have remained loyal to the junta throughout the unrest, as it did in 1988 when demonstrations spread across Myanmar.

Security at the Myawadi end of the Friendship Bridge dividing Thailand and Myanmar is tight. My passport is given a five-minute examination after leaving Mae Sot. Myanmese authorities confiscate my camera and the guards warn me to be back at the checkpoint by 5pm to return to Thailand.

Myawadi, a town of 66,000, makes much of its money by smuggling goods at night across the river to and from Thailand. A resident 48-year-old fisherman sums up Myawadi's almost blase attitude to the uprising. 'We support the monks and the students, but they can never win,' he said. 'Twenty years ago, there were protests all across Burma and they failed. This time, there are protests only in Rangoon and Mandalay. The army is stronger than ever and the people have no weapons, only words. How can they hope to succeed?'

Others in the town who are prepared to speak make it clear that resentment towards the regime runs as deep as it does in the capital, stoked by anger over the fuel and food prices that first triggered the demonstrations more than a month ago. 'We need help but the government does nothing to help us,' said a female shopkeeper. 'Last week, a kilogram of rice cost 30 baht [HK$7.30]. Today the price is 62 baht. People are hungry and can't afford to eat but the rich people do nothing. They don't care.'

Newspapers in Myanmar said nothing about the UN special envoy's visit and no one in Myawadi seemed aware that he was coming. The protests have had some coverage, however, after an initial news blackout. On Saturday morning, the official state media announced: 'Peace and stability have been restored.'

Contacts in Yangon said by telephone that, in the capital, Dr Gambari's visit had excited enormous anticipation. 'There hasn't been a word in the official media ahead of his visit but people have shortwave radio and they know he's coming,' a UN source said. 'People are genuinely excited and they really do believe it's going to make a difference.'

It was not a view shared in diplomatic circles, the source said. 'The excitement of the people is an amazing triumph of hope over experience because the international community has done nothing for this country in the past,' he said.

'I'm surprised people aren't more cynical. It's going to be very difficult for Gambari to achieve anything because he has no bargaining power. He has no threats or incentives to offer. And the regime here has already made it abundantly clear that it doesn't care what the world thinks.'

The surprise for most people in the capital was that it took the government as long as it did to begin the crackdown. One theory was that it might have been the generals' bizarre move to the remote jungle capital in Naypyidaw, where they lived in secure, luxury villas, that made them slow to realise the immensity of the challenge.

'Remember that everything looked fine from the villa windows of Naypyidaw when the protests were at their peak,' one diplomat said. 'Commanders in the capital may well have played down the threat, reluctant to tear the generals away from the golf courses and risk their anger by telling them the extent of the protests.'

That delay gave the protesters a window of opportunity, and one that, in retrospect, might have been forced wide open had there been a split in the military. Win Hlaing, while keen to capitalise on signs of dissent in the army, had accepted it was only a remote possibility because of the way the army was structured. 'The military rounds up young people from poor rural areas and forces them to enter the army,' he said. 'They're taken away from their homes and families and made to live in barracks where they have no contact with ordinary people.

'Before they were sent in to Rangoon, their officers told them there was a communist uprising in the capital and they must crush the coup. Some soldiers realised they were just monks and ordinary people and refused to fire - but most of them just obeyed orders. They don't have any choice and they don't know any other way.'

With Yangon in the iron grip of the army and that window of opportunity closed, the only hope for the exiled National League for Democracy representatives was outside intervention.

'We want China to act,' Win Hlaing said. 'China has, until now, protected the junta which has been very negative for the people. When China and Russia blocked sanctions earlier this year, the military became more confident and more willing to be brutal to people.

'We want Buddhist countries to unite against what is happening. We want Buddhists from China and Nepal and everywhere else in the region to unite against what is being done to the monks. This isn't only a Burma affair. It's a Buddhist affair.'

As the visit of Dr Gambari drew to a close and the eyes of the world inevitably turned away from Myanmar, there were few signs that Win Hlaing's voice would be heard or that his appeal to Myanmar's neighbours would be seen as anything more than a triumph of hope over experience.