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Foreign Correspondent
INSIDE TRACK ON WORLD NEWS
by international syndicated columnist & broadcaster Eric Margolis

Burma: Proceed with Caution

October 1, 2007

PARIS – The growing unrest and mass street demonstrations that have flared across Myanmar in recent weeks may herald an extremely dangerous period for this nation formerly known as Burma.

Military-ruled Myanmar is extremely difficult to enter and bans foreign journalists. This writer has managed to slip into Myanmar three times. On the last, I was told the secret police were actually conducting bed checks in people’s homes in the capital Yangon (formerly Rangoon)to ensure no trouble-makers from the rebellious northern states were in town.

On my second visit, I eluded the secret police and got to see the nation’s Noble prize-winning democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi in her home, where she has been under house arrest for 17 years.

The crisis in Myanmar seems a simple morality drama. The saintly Suu Kyi is held like a bird in a cage by a junta of brutal, wicked generals, who until recently called themselves the wonderfully Orwellian name of `State Law and Order Council,’ or SLORC for short. In 1988, the junta’s soldiers crushed student demonstrations, killing 3,000. After Suu Kyi’s party won a landslide victory in 1990 elections, the generals annulled the voted and declared martial law.

This week President George Bush and other western nations called for even tighter sanctions against Burma’s junta and urged its replacement with democratic government.

Burma indeed is a nasty police state. Its generals have plundered resources and kept this magnificent nation in direst poverty. Myanmar is often called a `jewel’ and `unspoiled Asia of 1940’s.’ True enough. But that’s because the junta and its predecessor, mad dictator, Gen. Ne Win, turned Burma into a weird hermit kingdom and one of the world’s poorest countries.

But extreme caution is advised in dealing with Myanmar. If things go wrong there, it could turn into an Southeast Asian version of Iraq, Yugoslavia or Afghanistan.

Myanmar’s central government has been at war for 50 years with 17 ethnic rebel groups seeking secession from the former 14-state Union of Burma created by Imperial Britain, godfather of many of the world’s worst current problems.

Burmans, of Tibetan ethnic origin, form 68% of the population of 57 million. But there are other important, distinct ethnic groups: Shan, the largely Christian Karen, Kachin, Chin, Mon, Wa, and Rakhine, Anglo-Burmese, Indians and Chinese. The largest, Shan, with their Shan State Army, are ethnically close to neighboring Thailand, and in cahoots with the Thai military. Each major ethnic group has its own army and finances itself through smuggling timber, jewels, arms, and drugs.

The military juntas in Rangoon, and its 500,000-man armed forces, know as `Tatmadaw,’ battled these secessionists for decades until the current junta managed to establish uneasy ceasefires with all the major rebel groups.

If the junta were to be replaced by a democratic civilian government led by the gentle Suu Kyi, and military repression ended, it is highly likely Myanmar’s ethnic rebellions would quickly re-ignite. The only force holding Myanmar together is the military and secret police.

Shan, Karen, Kachin, and Mon still demand their own independent nations. Burma’s powerful neighbors – India, China and Thailand – have their eye on this potentially resource-rich nation. They, and neighboring Bangladesh, also fear Burma’s troubles will spill across their borders, as occurred in 2002 when the military junta expelled thousands of Muslims to Bangladesh from the Arakan region.

China exercises strong political, economic and military influence over Myanmar and is building a naval base near Rangoon to give it direct access for the first time to the Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean. India sees rival China threatening its rebellion-plagued eastern hill states along the Burmese border, and is increasingly alarmed by Chinese naval ambitions in the Indian Ocean.

A new democratic government in Yangon-Rangoon that is not tough enough to deal with secessionist regions around its troubled periphery could see Burma fall into internal turmoil and also invite intervention by covetous neighbors. At worst, India and China could even clash head-on over control of strategic Burma, a threat identified in my book on Asian geopolitics and Indian-Chinese rivalry, `War at the Top of the World.’

So the west should tread with great caution in Burma. War teaches geography, as Roman historian Tacitus rightly noted, but the western world has not even yet figured out the difference between Bosnians, Croats and Serbs, never mind Wa, Chin, Kachin and Karen.

Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2007.

Published at Bigeye.com since 1995 with permission, as a courtesy and in appreciation.

To read previous columns by Mr. Margolis: Click here

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