Sunday, February 22, 2009

Burma's Agony by Rena Pederson --

> "Burma's Agony"

> By Rena Pederson
> Thursday, February 19, 2009; A15

> NAYPYIDAW, Burma -- This is a city constructed out of fear. Naypyidaw
> reportedly was created by Burma's brutal dictators on the advice of
> astrologers and built in part by forced labor. Worried they might be
> vulnerable to attack in Rangoon, a port city, they abruptly moved the
> government 250 miles to the north three years ago and modestly named
> the new capital "Abode of Kings."

> It is from here that the generals ordered that monks peacefully
> protesting gas prices in 2007 be beaten, shot and imprisoned, and here
> that they hunkered down in their mansions and thwarted international
> efforts to help after Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy Delta
> last year and ravaged the lives of millions.

> Few reach this remote city: Permission is required to come by plane,
> and a new superhighway was built primarily for government officials.
> Most travel the six-plus hours from Rangoon over a bumpy two-lane road
> shared by plodding ox carts and bicycle riders. Much of rural Burma
> still functions without electricity; families get by as they have for
> centuries, with hand pumps for water and cooking fires. Only the tea
> shops in villages have TVs, which run on generators. People watch
> soccer and maybe the news on al-Jazeera, then walk home in the dark.

> Near Naypyidaw, however, the skies come ablaze. A huge new power
> station makes electricity available for the generals at all hours. The
> rutted road turns into an eight-lane highway lined by lights. Nearby,
> a reproduction of Burma's most hallowed site, the Shwedagon Pagoda in
> Rangoon, is being constructed as the generals race to show their
> piety.

> At first glance, the capital looks almost normal. There's a new mall
> sporting cheap Chinese goods, a zoo where children can feed elephants,
> modern high-rise apartments, a luxury resort with a golf course. But
> there are also guards everywhere -- in towers, on corners. And people
> along the side of the road seem to be watching everyone else --
> intensely.

> In recent weeks, reports surfaced that the junta is building a series
> of tunnels under the capital. Rumors swirled: Are they part of a
> nuclear project? Escape routes? An underground gulag?

> On one level there is a plastic veneer of modern life. Local TV
> channels show smiling young models singing about "Kiss Me" shampoo,
> and billboards advertise laptops. There's even a Starbucks-style
> coffee house in Rangoon.

> Yet on another level there is rampant poverty, disease and sex
> trafficking. People in famine-stricken areas pay a nickel for rats to
> eat. In the northern no-man's land, miners are paid with opium and
> pass along HIV via group needles. In the largely Christian Karen
> villages that the junta is systematically destroying, the women are
> raped and children are forced into the military as human mine
> detectors.

> In the Mandalay area farther north, the monasteries where the monks'
> Saffron Revolution began in 2007 are still under heavy guard. The
> worship places are silent, abandoned. South in the delta area battered
> by Nargis, people struggle to get by -- haunted, they say, by the
> ghostly cries of those who were swept away. Though the government has
> trumpeted its help, most of the assistance has come from
> nongovernmental organizations, churches and monasteries.

> Here in Naypyidaw, ruling general Than Shwe recently claimed he was so
> busy accepting the credentials of some new ambassadors that he did not
> have time to meet with U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari about
> democratic reforms. Gambari left after being rebuked by Prime Minister
> Gen. Thein Sein, who demanded the lifting of international economic
> sanctions on Burma and called them a "human rights violation." U.N.
> Secretary General Ban Ki-moon put a diplomatic spin on events, saying
> Gambari had "good discussions there even though one may not be totally
> satisfied."

> Gambari is supposed to brief the Security Council on Friday. Members
> should be told what the generals did as soon as he left: closed more
> churches in Rangoon, refused to let lawyers visit some of the
> country's more than 2,100 political prisoners and extended the arrest
> of an 82-year-old opposition leader.

> Naypyidaw symbolizes the stalemate over Burma: The generals in their
> labyrinth have created a surreal reality and defy world opinion. The
> international community lets them get away with it by failing to
> produce an effective, moral, organized response.

> It is up to the Obama foreign policy team to put more backbone in the
> U.N. efforts. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's remarks yesterday
> about sanctions drew new attention to the issue. The Obama team has
> the chance to calibrate financial sanctions so they squeeze the
> generals and their money-laundering cronies. It can insist that
> verifiable benchmarks of real progress, such as the release of
> political prisoners, be met before development favors are done for the
> junta. And it can remind the world that the election scheduled for
> 2010 shouldn't fool anyone. It is being engineered to ensure the
> generals' hold on power, meaning business will continue as usual in
> Naypyidaw.

> [Rena Pederson, a former speechwriter at the State Department, is the
> author of the forthcoming book "The Burma Quartet."]


No comments: