Myanmars Anguish

The struggle of the people of Myanmar for justice in the face of an iron-fisted military junta (which changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989) that tolerates no dissent continues unabated. At the center of the struggle is the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy party that won an overwhelming victory in the 1990 election. Spurning those election results, however, the junta, formally known as the State Peace and Development Council, placed her under house arrest, where she has remained on and off for a dozen of the last 18 years.

The violent attacks on peaceful protesters last September shocked the international community, as photos circulated around the world over the Internet. Soldiers fired into a crowd of monks and peaceful protesters in Yangon, killing some and arresting many hundreds more. The junta has acknowledged that 15 people were killed, but its opponents believe the number may be much higher. The participation of monks in the protest, in a country where Buddhism is the dominant religion, made domestic reaction and international condemnation all the stronger.

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The army claims to be an all-volunteer force, but so pressing is its need for more soldiers that recruitment efforts extend even to children. Recent reports by Human Rights Watch describe in detail how army recruiters, desperate to meet their quotas, virtually buy children. High desertion rates make the recruiters’ desperation all the more intense. In an effort to allay growing international criticism, the junta established what it calls the Committee for the Prevention of Military Recruitment of Underage Children. In fact, Jo Becker of Human Rights Watch, the organization’s children’s rights advocate, told America that the committee and other activities are basically cosmetic and “have done nothing to change the practice on the ground.”

Recruiters continue to watch bus and train stations and markets for boys, who are promised money, free education and other benefits. Resistance can lead to beatings. Theoretically, recruits must prove that they are at least 18 years old, but according to interviews with recruits, there is little insistence on real proof. According to Human Rights Watch, one boy failed his medical exam because he weighed only 70 pounds. His recruiter, though, bribed the medical officer to allow the child to enlist. Some boys have been involved in the army’s ethnic cleansing attacks on minority villages in the eastern part of the country, where fighting has displaced half a million ethnic Burmese, many of whom remain internally displaced persons.

China, Myanmar’s giant neighbor to the north, and to some extent India and Russia, bear much of the responsibility for the junta’s violent suppression of dissent and its attacks on ethnic minority groups. All three countries supply the army with weapons. Both China and Russia, moreover, have tried to block U.N. efforts to impose sanctions on the military government. For its purchase of arms, Myanmar depends largely on revenue from the sale of gemstones, for which the country is famous, especially rubies and jade. Over 90 percent of all rubies sold worldwide originate in Myanmar. In addition to serving as the main source of financing for arms purchases, the gems have also been one of the ways by which corrupt military officials have personally enriched themselves in a country where deep poverty is endemic. Attempting to block sales of the gems, the European Union in October placed sanctions on importing them, and legislation is pending in Congress that would ban their purchase in the United States. Some companies, like Tiffany & Co., have already refused to buy them, and after the September attack on protesters, Bulgari, Cartier and other jewelry companies followed suit.

For almost half a century, the Burmese people have suffered under the weight of oppressive military governance. The greatest need now is for a return to democratic civilian rule. The courageous monks, some of whom have been beaten and jailed, and other peaceful protesters have made their voices heard throughout the world. They, together with the longstanding support shown for Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy party, make it clear that the people long for a civilian-ruled government that will respect their long-abused human rights. In the meantime, international pressure, including pressure by the United Nations, should focus on some of the more egregious abuses—ending the attacks on ethnic groups, the release of prisoners held primarily for the exercise of their right to free speech and prohibiting the recruitment of children into the army.

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