Haunted by the brutality

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 December, 2007, 12:00am


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In a year of progress, consolidation and electoral change across East Asia, it was one of the region's most isolated nations that provided its most worrying spark - Myanmar. Peaceful protests, often led by the nation's revered Buddhist monks, escalated nationwide through September, ending with the most severe crackdown by its ruling military junta since the bloody suppression of the democracy movement in 1988.

Then, more than 3,000 people were estimated to have been killed. The junta confirmed 15 deaths in September's violence but UN envoys warned that the figure could be far higher; hundreds more were detained in action that included soldiers raiding monasteries in their hunt for agitators.

The protests were hardly an isolated, spontaneous action and various reports indicate more can be expected in the coming months. 'They will be peaceful,' said one emigre this week who is involved in plotting potential future activity. 'By our calculations, any attempt to take control by more forceful means would lead to bloodshed on a terrible scale. We cannot afford that, so we will keep building on our non-violent action in a way that still hurts the generals.'

While suppressed, Myanmar's internal and exiled pro-democracy movements are widespread, some having access to funding and training in non-violent political agitation via the US taxpayer-funded National Endowment for Democracy and other international bodies.

Like in 1988, the initial protests were linked to street-level economic issues. With inflation already running at more than 30 per cent a year, in August the regime ended subsidies on fuel as high oil prices started to bite - sending transport and food costs spiralling. With much of its population already struggling to stay above the poverty line, the impact was swiftly felt. And with a 450,000-strong army taking nearly half the nation's budget, the junta's economic planners have little room to manoeuvre.

But this year's actions were also markedly different in other ways. The internet age played its part from the earliest moments. Mobile phone SMS campaigns helped whip up support and co-ordinate activity; mobile phone footage also swiftly found its way outside of the country despite internal internet crackdowns. Exile news websites and YouTube were filled with footage of the military's actions.

One of the starkest images captured the fatal shooting at point-blank range of Japanese cameraman Kenji Nagai on the streets of Yangon on September 27. A soldier was seen grabbing a video camera from the dying Nagai in footage captured in secret elsewhere and later distributed over the internet.

Then there was the video footage of the elaborate wedding of the daughter of General Than Shwe, the secretive chief of the ruling State Peace and Development Council, that found its way onto international websites such as YouTube.

Such exposure helped drive the issue outside the country, with tensions reverberating far beyond. The violence has highlighted different approaches towards dealing with Myanmar inside the region and beyond.

The US and Europe swiftly tightened sanctions on a regime they have long objected to. For emerging superpowers such as China and India, however, the situation is different. Myanmar is on both nations' borders and both have military and economic strategic ties.

China and India have expressed concern about the situation and have made quiet contact with the opposition. But neither have supported sanctions.

Myanmar is a member of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations and has active links with many members, including Singapore and Thailand. While several members of the diverse grouping have expressed concern at Myanmar's recalcitrance, the grouping has struggled to rein it in.

Asean marked its 40th anniversary this year, signing a new landmark charter to put the political grouping on a more formal legal footing. Rooted in consensus decision-making and the tradition of non-interference in members' affairs, the charter has stopped short of any formal punishments to control members who ignore its decisions.

That impotence was revealed at the recent Asean leaders meeting in Singapore. As a senior UN envoy arrived at Singapore's invitation to brief the meeting on his recent visit to Myanmar, representatives from Myanmar objected to such a session. Ibrahim Gambari had to meet individual members on the sidelines.

Asean has also skirted talk of deepening sanctions, saying that issue should be dealt with at the UN.

The international impact of Myanmar's instability is widely expected to rumble on through next year.

But if Myanmar injected fear and uncertainty into the regional picture, this year has been marked by progress elsewhere, particularly by North Korea.

The year started in the shadow of Pyongyang's first test of a nuclear weapon in October 2006. It was a move that made the region a vastly more dangerous place and further highlighted shifts in the security assumptions that have governed East Asia for decades.

The year started with difficulty when US$25 million of North Korea's funds remained frozen in Macau, a US-led move that confirmed its financial isolation and effectively shut off wider international commercial dealings. Pyongyang was showing little interest in dignifying the six-nation effort to create a new era of peace on the Korean peninsula - a drive that links China, the US, Japan, Russia and both North and South Korea.

By February, however, the first cracks were appearing in the walls of the world's last remaining Stalinist state. Pyongyang signed up to a revised six-party deal that offered aid, diplomatic normalisation and peace in return for the verifiable destruction of its nuclear programme and weapons stocks. Given that the Korean war has never formally ended and the North-South border remains the most fortified stretch of land on the planet, a meaningful peace is an impressive target.

On paper, it was a landmark document. In practice, few diplomatic insiders are expecting progress to be easy, given the difficulties of dealing with the prickly and contrarian regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

It has shut down its main reactors at its Yongbyon nuclear plant and in October Mr Kim received outgoing South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun for only the second North-South summit. The pair discussed a new peaceful era of ties but agreed on few specifics. More discreetly, Pyongyang dispatched technocrats to New York to meet bankers and financial analysts for advice on taking the first steps in relinking its bankrupt economy to the outside world. The saga over its long-term accounts in Macau's Banco Delta Asia revealed, for example, that the North lacks the ability to even move funds electronically inside or outside the country.

The year is ending with Pyongyang dragging its feet over the next step in the six-party deal - the full disclosure of the extent of its nuclear facilities and weapons stockpiles, a crucial move if the international community is to verify that the country is nuclear free.

The reluctance cuts to the heart of one of the key imponderables in the North Korean problem. Why would Mr Kim want to completely give up his weapons? Above all else, the tiny elite at the top of his regime apparently remains committed to its survival. Missiles and nuclear weapons make it harder to bully, much less invade, North Korea.

Leadership changes may also have an impact. Last week confirmed the election of Lee Myung-bak as South Korea's new president. The dynamic former mayor of Seoul is the first conservative in the Blue House after a decade of left-leaning leaders.

He has vowed to review the links forged by Mr Roh and campaigned on taking a tougher line towards future ties, specifically wanting the North to match any concessions from the South. He is also a pragmatic former industrialist, so how he juggles Seoul's most complex relationship will be one of the most eagerly anticipated moves of the new year. Mr Lee is also determined to boost ties with South Korea's traditional ally, the US.

Other six-party players are changing as well. In Japan, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party chose one of its more senior figures, Yasuo Fukuda, to replace the hawkish Shinzo Abe. Mr Abe won praise for reaching out to the region but struggled to keep a lid on domestic scandals across his cabinet. With opposition Democrats snaring an unprecedented grip on the Upper House, he did not even complete a year in office before resigning. The image of a sick and worn Mr Abe leaving office in his limousine is among the starkest political footage of the year.

Mr Fukuda, currently on his first mission to Beijing, is keen to keep long-held promises to boost Japan's ties with China and the region. If Mr Fukuda's trip to Beijing goes well, President Hu Jintao is expected to visit Japan in spring, following in the footsteps of Premier Wen Jiabao , who helped thaw relations with his historic speech to the Japanese Diet in April.

Regional eyes will also be on Washington, ahead of the US presidential elections in December. The embattled administration of President George W. Bush is keen to find a legacy after eight years in office and any sign of progress from Pyongyang may be met with fresh overtures from Washington.

Given the demands of the Middle East and Iraq, the US is often accused of taking its eye off the East Asia ball. How a new president, Democrat or Republican, will approach regional policy and trade remains uncertain, particularly given the rise of China.

An air of anticipation is also greeting the new year in Thailand. This year the military junta and its interim government struggled to capitalise on the relative goodwill that greeted its coup to oust autocratic prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September. Thai voters made clear they wanted elected government back as they voted at the weekend to hand a victory to Mr Thaksin's political proxies, the People's Power Party.

The PPP is still trying to form a coalition to give it parliamentary control. Many uncertainties remain. Just as the outgoing junta and Thai voters want stability, Mr Thaksin's return from self-exile to face corruption charges remains potentially divisive.

Few in the establishment believe the billionaire tycoon's claims that he does not want to be involved in politics and many want to see him jailed. How Mr Thaksin deals domestically with the junta's portrayal of him as a corrupt dictator who was disloyal to the revered king will be one of the most closely watched issues of 2008.

Between Myanmar, Thailand and North Korea, it has been a tough year for military rulers.