Friday, October 5, 2007


By Anuj Chopra

I came to Burma in late August to investigate the growing protests sparked by government fuel price hikes -- just weeks before smaller protests swelled to massive demonstrations led by tens of thousands of monks. In a religiously devout country where nearly 80 percent of the population is Buddhist, the monks hold tremendous sway over the Burmese people.

A few days after I arrived, walking down Rangoon's busy Shwe Gon Daing street, I encountered a small but angry group of about 35 protesters chanting slogans against the government's decision to raise fuel prices. Security officials in plain clothes emerged on the scene quickly. Shops in the area rolled down their shutters. Journalists were ordered to stay on the other side of the road and refrain from taking pictures, and a waiting crowd watched in nervous anticipation. The protesters were roughed up -- some of them punched in the face -- and then tossed into a waiting police truck. The small demonstration was crushed in a matter of minutes. It's not the army in uniforms beating up people, I noticed, but thugs probably hired by the junta. I wondered if the military regime feels it has less direct culpability that way. I was watching from a distance like a curious bystander and didn't risk taking out my camera. But the junta's photographers were busy clicking pictures of the crowd. I was told they keep track of who is attending these protest rallies. If the same people are seen in more than two protest rallies, they fall under the government's radar of suspicion. In these early weeks of the protest public participation is still conspicuously low. For days the government paper, The New Light of Myanmar, has been carrying ominous articles warning protesters that if they didn't cease and desist, they could be in jail for up to 20 years. Even the air coughs fear...

Nearly 90% of Burmese live close to or at the poverty line; the per capita income is a meager $175, even below neighboring Bangladesh and Chad; Burma's military dictatorship spends 40% of the budget on the upkeep of its 450,000-strong army - the largest in South East Asia; only a sliver of the budget goes to health care and education.


By Anuj Chopra

We've been inundated with Myanmar for the last few days. As the people of this tiny nation turn out in force to protest their lack of democratic rights
, Myanmar’s Orwellian dictatorship, which has ruled the country for 45 years, has clamped down with an iron fist.

The world is outraged at the use of force on peaceful demonstrators. However, just next door, Indians watch with serene detachment. The MEA has its own prosaic reasons for its insipid response to the “internal matters” of a restive neighbour: India needs to “safeguard its strategic interests”, we’re told. India has a lot to lose if it supports a weak democratic movement that is bound to be crushed — Myanmar can, after all, slake India’s unquenchable thirst for gas. It can also help vanquish ULFA, India’s nemesis in the Northeast. And India needs to mollycoddle Myanmar to create a buffer for China, our rival Asian behemoth.

So India’s okay doing business with an odious regime that wages war on its own people, dragoons them into forced labour, pauperises a once-thriving nation and muzzles all dissent. There is no national outrage as India sells weapons to a brutal regime, rendering toothless a decade-old EU arms embargo meant to pressure the junta to restore democracy.

I found the indifference even more disconcerting after I travelled to Myanmar in August. The recent protests have been glossed over with a patina of democratic yearnings, but they, just like Myanmar’s 1988 uprising for democracy, were triggered by the worsening economic hardships of ordinary Myanmarese...