Wed, Dec 12, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Forgetting Myanmar all over again

World powers, the UN and ASEAN were talking tough over Myanmar's brutality, but with the passage of only weeks it turns out they were all talk


The streets are quiet in Myanmar. The "destructive elements" are in jail. The international outcry has faded. The junta's grip on power seems firm.

Two months after they cracked down on huge anti-government demonstrations led by Buddhist monks, the generals who rule Myanmar have reason to feel relief.

It seems they have ridden out their most difficult challenge in two decades and are set to maintain control through force and fear, offering only small concessions to the demands of their critics abroad.

If change is coming in Myanmar, experts say, it is likely to be a long process and to emerge from within the power structure.

Diplomats and human rights groups say that an unknown number of protesters and monks remain in prison today, that many monasteries in the main city, Yangon, have emptied out and that new arrests are reported almost every day.

"This is the soft continuation of the crackdown of August and September," said David Mathieson, an expert on Myanmar for Human Rights Watch, which released a report on the uprising on Friday.

During the crackdown, the report said, security forces fired into crowds, beat marchers and monks and arbitrarily detained thousands of people.

The report documented 20 deaths in Yangon, but said it believed the toll was much higher.

"Without full and independent access to the country it is impossible to determine exact casualty figures," it said.

The government admits to only 15 deaths.

Meeting with reporters here last week, the top US diplomat in Myanmar, Shari Villarosa, said the continuing repression "raises questions about the sincerity of the military in pursuing what we will consider to be a genuine dialogue leading to national reconciliation."

In what seems to be a sign of Washington's waning clout in the region, China, India and Myanmar's Southeast Asian neighbors have brushed aside Washington's calls for an economic embargo and the diplomatic isolation of the junta.

As the attention of the world shifts elsewhere, the generals have made it clear that they intend to follow their own course, as they have through a half-century of self-imposed isolation.

On Monday, they signaled their defiance by announcing that a constitutional drafting committee had begun its work and was not going to listen to outside voices. The constitution is one step on what the junta calls a "road map to democracy." Many analysts call it a dodge to evade genuine reform.

"The road map will, of course, lead to a military-dominated civilianized government, which will perpetuate themselves in power," said David Steinberg, a leading expert on Myanmar at Georgetown University in Washington.

As it has in the past when it has faced international pressure, the junta has offered small gestures of compliance. But analysts say that whatever happens, the generals are not about to give real ground to the demands of the UN.

In one of these concessions, UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari will visit Myanmar this month for the third time in an attempt to nudge the government toward a dialogue with its opposition.

He follows in the footsteps of a half a dozen other UN envoys over the past 17 years who have failed to moderate the behavior of the junta.

In another concession, a government official has held three meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader who has spent 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest. The official, Minister of Labor Aung Kyi, said on Monday that more meetings were planned, though he was vague about the time frame.

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