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Day 17

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The Monks, the Junta and the Lady by the Lake

Burma by the Numbers

by TOM CLIFFORD

Since in Burma the number 9 is a fraught digit astrologers predicted 9/27/2007 would be a day of turbulence and the government was presumably expecting this, since it regularly consults astrologers on policy, just as President Reagan did. Perhaps the US State Department or the White House’s stargazers had the same anticipation, since earlier in the week, Bush had fingered Burma/Myanmar as his pick this year for his Arc of Evil club.

The Burmese currency was changed, on the advice of an astrologer, because nine was considered a luckier number than 10. A former head of state U Ne Win, thought certain number combinations would be more fortuitous, so 15, 45 and 90-kyat notes still circulate alongside the more straightforward fives and multiples of 10.

Then in November 2005, the junta began moving its government from Rangoon to a town called Naypidaw, little more than a jungle clearing. The operation began at 6.37am – a time recommended by an astrologer employed by the senior general Than Shwe.

The current military regime, the State Peace and Development Council, has ruled Burma since 1988, when it crushed a widespread democracy movement, killing thousands of people.

Currently Burma is governed, if that is the right phrase, by General Than Shwe, 73. A former postal clerk, he has been chairman of the SPDC and acted as head of state since 1992. He despises democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and arrested his prime minister Khin Nyunt, who recommended a dialogue with Suu Kyi. Her father established the Burmese army before his assassination just prior to independence in 1947.

Suu Kyi, the spirit of the nation, lives under house arrest in a run-down villa on the shore of Lake Inya and is referred to simply as The Lady. In 1990, the military junta called a general election, which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won decisively. Being the NLD’s candidate, Suu Kyi should have assumed the office of prime minister. Instead, the results were nullified, and the military refused to hand over power.

In northern Burma the roads and highways are clogged with the presence of Chinese construction lorries. Beijing has supplied the Burmese military with a wish-list of equipment. Fighter aircraft, tanks, patrol boats, armored personnel carriers, field artillery pieces ,small arms and ammunition, worth more than $2bn have been dispatched. The Burmese generals are consistent; in any choice between arms and butter it is always arms. Chinese banks have financed new roads, railways, ports and dams. In return Beijing gets ample supplies of crude oil, natural gas and access to the Indian Ocean. In diplomatic terms Burma has air cover against any flak from the West whose influence in matters of regime change has itself been severely curtailed. Iraq has diluted the virtuous pronouncements of the three B’s, Bush Blair and Brown. Opposition parties that before would have publicized their links to the West are far more circumspect. Besides, Western firms have dealt with the junta with the full, complicit knowledge of Washington and London.

Even the country’s name is a source of confusion. In 1989, the military junta officially changed the English version of the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar, along with changes to the English versions of many place names in the country, such as its former capital city from Rangoon to Yangon. Suu Kyi continues to use the name Burma since she does not recognize the legitimacy of the ruling military government to rename the country. Some western governments, namely those of the United States, Australia, Ireland, and Britain, continue to use "Burma", while the European Union uses "Burma/Myanmar" as an alternative. But even if Burma was under a democratic government tomorrow with an agreed name its troubles would not be over. It is a deeply divided nation and Burman dominance over Karen, Shan, Rakhine, Mon, Chin, Kachin and other minorities has been the source of considerable ethnic tension. Its strategic location would make it a playground for international intrigue. But that does not give an ounce of legitimacy to the junta who have gutted the country for their own pockets.

TOM CLIFFORD can be reached ar tclifford@gulfnews.com