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The good, the bad and the ugly

September 26, 2007

As the UN General Assembly gathers in New York and the 2008 Olympics in China are drawing near, Burmese riot police attack marching monks. While the UN have good intentions for the Burmese people, the military regime seem to be be dealing very badly with the protests, and China will look really ugly if they do not act against the Burmese generals.

For eight days straight, Burmese Buddhist monks have been marching in the streets of Rangoon. What started as protests against high costs of living soon became pro-democracy marches as the monks were joined by nuns, students and ordinary people. For eight days straight, the normally brutal and ruthless military junta has done nothing about it. But on the ninth day, riot police strikes against the peaceful protests.

According to the BBC, Burmese riot police charged the crowd outside the Shwedagon Pagoda, using tear gas and batons against the monks and their followers. British newspaper the Independent reports that the police also fired warning shots, and according to Oslo-based radio station Democratic Voice of Burma, one protester has been shot dead. In an effort to stop the protests, the military junta has imposed a a night-time curfew and banned all public gatherings of more than five people. However, neither the riot police nor the curfew seems to be enough to silence the monks, who have vowed not to stop marching until the military regime is removed.

– We have already decided to risk our lives for the people, although there might be some clashes, one senior monk told the press bureau AFP.

The world is watching

The Burmes junta are now in a desperate situation. The protests have been gaining momentum day by day, and it is clear that the monks and their supporters mean business. It must be tempting for the generals to react the way they have always done when people have had the nerve to stand up to them: with violence. This time, however, meeting peaceful protests with violence might be just as disastrous for the military junta as for the Burmese people. Any further use of force against the protesters will not go unnoticed. Statesmen from all over the world have made clear that they expect the regime in Burma to handle the protests peacefully, and that a violent attack on the marchers is unacceptable.

US President George Bush has already announced new US sanctions against Burma, including economic sanctions and an expanded visa ban on leaders of the regime and their financial backers.

Yesterday, Britain’s ambassador to Burma, Mark Canning, told some of Burma’s leaders that it will be disastrous in the eyes of the world if the Burmese authorities use force against the protesters. According to the Independent, the European Union has also threatened to strengthen existing sanctions against the regime in the case of violence, and British PM Gordon Brown has ordered his officials to draw up a list of measures that Britain could impose unilaterally if the EU fails to act.

China holds the key

Mr Brown is also calling for the UN Security Council to issue a warning to the regime. While increased British/American sanctions may not have much of an effect on the Burmese military regime, a warning from the UN – preferably in the form of a resolution – might actually mean something to the generals. China and Russia – permanent partners in the Security Council – are among Burma’s few important trade partners, as most of the world has already imposed sanctions on the brutal regime. China and Russia are also the two countries that until now have blocked UN attempts to act on Burma. That might be about to change.

China is hosting the 2008 Olympics, thus all eyes are on China these days. The Chinese authorities know perfectly well that western governments are aware of China’s influence on the Burmese military regime. China could very well hold the key to real political change in Burma, and the UN must now tell them, loud and clear, that now is the time to turn that key. While George Bush used the UN General Assembly in New York to announce tighter sanctions on Burma, Britain plans to put the pressure on China. It is time for the rest of the world to follow this example. While the Burmese generals have long experience in turning a deaf ear to western criticism, China is more sensitive to pressure than it has been for a long time. While the 2008 Olympics gives China a reason to listen, the UN General Assembly gives the world a perfect opportunity to speak out. If the governments of the world miss this golden opportunity to do something about the horrible conditions in Burma, we will all be guilty if the protests end in a blood bath.

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