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Washington, D.C., October 3, 2007 - In an appearance this afternoon before a special session on Burma of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, Voice of America (VOA) Burmese service chief Than Lwin Htun said that the situation in Burma is "anything but normal."
"Just this morning," he continued, "residents in Mandalay, the second largest city in Burma, told us many monks who participated in streets protests were picked up at night from their monasteries. A Burmese news journal editor told us that many journalists were stopped on the streets and their cells phones and digital cameras were searched."
Than Lwin Htun went on to say, "(The Voice of America) tell(s) the world what is happening inside Burma. And we do our best to let all Burmese citizens know that they are not alone. We are proud to be able to empower the people of Burma with accurate news about how the world is responding to events inside Burma. We feel our reporting sustains the hope that they need to keep alive so that when their day finally arrives, they will prevail."
Full text of Than Lwin Htun's statement follows.
The Voice of America has increased Burmese language broadcasts from one and a half hours to three hours a day in response to the Burmese government’s crackdown. The Voice of America, which first went on the air in 1942, is a multimedia international broadcasting service funded by the U.S. government through the Broadcasting Board of Governors. VOA broadcasts more than 1,000 hours of news, information, educational, and cultural programming every week to an estimated worldwide audience of more than 115 million people. Programs are produced in 45 languages.
Statement of Than Lwin Htun
Chief, Burmese Service, Voice of America
Congressional Human Rights Caucus
Special Update: Burma
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Caucus:
Thank you for inviting me here today to discuss the current situation in Burma. I understand you would like me to stay focused on what is happening today and how I see the situation unfolding in the days and weeks ahead. Let me also mention that the comments I will make today reflect my personal views, and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government.
To begin: the Burmese Foreign Minister at the United Nations General Assembly on Monday said, "normalcy has returned in Burma". The question I would like to ask is "what kind of normalcy" is he referring to? I am certain he does not mean to say Burma is "quiet".
Let's have a quick look at the situation on the streets in Rangoon and other cities to see if normalcy prevails.
Several VOA reporters in the region and other news agencies report that the situation is anything but normal. Just this morning, residents in Mandalay, the second largest city in Burma, told us many monks who participated in streets protests were picked up at night from their monasteries. A Burmese news journal editor told us that many journalists were stopped on the streets and their cells phones and digital cameras were searched. Also this morning, Mr. Paul Paisley, a World Food Program official in Bangkok told us that merchants in the countryside could not transport rice and other staple food to the cities due to skyrocketing transportation costs.
The junta says only ten people have died (including a Japanese reporter). Diplomats in Rangoon are estimating as many as 100 may have been killed. But my "88" generation sources in Rangoon have already published the names of 138 people who have perished at the hands of the army last week. All of this reminds me of my days in 1988 when I was a student activist in Burma and the government was saying only 200 or so so-called "looters" had been killed but my colleagues and I knew for sure that over 3,000 peaceful demonstrators had died.
Of course the streets are now empty and the visible protests have been quashed. But the scene is not at all tranquil: thousands of heavily armed soldiers are on patrol, manning all the key intersections and important public gathering places like the holy Slue and Shwedagon pagodas in Rangoon. These are the sites where many monks and ordinary Burmese were beaten up or gunned down during last week's demonstrations. Is a situation "normal" when barbed wire fences are everywhere? Is it "normal" for all intersections to be barricaded and for all people leaving and entering the city to be searched and harassed by soldiers? Why are so many shops and businesses still closed? Why are the classrooms in the schools empty if it is not because parents are afraid of sending their kids to school?
The top U.S. diplomat in Rangoon in an interview with VOA Burmese Service yesterday morning told us "it is quiet here; people are too scared to go onto the roads. We visited several monasteries and found so many of them to be empty and guarded by security forces blocking public access." In summary, the only truth in the claim of the Foreign Minister that Burma is back to normal is that it has resumed to being a country of fear. For too many years, fear has been the "normal" state of affairs in Burma.
The second question I would like to address is whether all the dissent and the desire to change Burma to a democracy have all been ended. It is understandable that with such an extreme use of violence, people might be scared to continue their struggle so openly. The discontent of the people has taken deeper root than ever. They are suffering as much as ever before, if not more. Commodity prices are still as high as ever, if not higher. Plus they have fewer human rights than they did before this crisis. Their resentment is so strong that it is only a question of time before it erupts again in some as yet unforeseeable way.
My understanding is that monks do not need to protest in the streets to carry out the religious boycott they started on September 19. Let me explain this important point: the military is powerful because they have guns; the monks' power resides in their contributions to the religious life of every Burmese. The majority of the 400,000 soldiers in the Burmese army are Buddhists. They are going to want to practice their religion. The religious boycott means all the soldiers, the authorities to whom they report, and their families are no longer eligible to participate in Buddhist rituals. In other words, to apply Western terms to the situation in Burma, they will be "shunned" or "excommunicated" by the religious clergy. They will have nowhere to go to worship. The monks' goal is to punish the army for its actions. But I believe the boycott might lead to a split in the army, perhaps even at the top. Many thousands of soldiers regard Buddhism as their shield, as their protection against any kind of danger. Without their shield, they will be vulnerable and open to harm. They might not want to remain banished forever.
The result of the boycott might be a split in the army. In the past few days we have heard of troops refusing orders to shoot or beat monks. At the height of tension in the first week, sources close to the Army said the number two general, General Maung Aye, had been telling his close subordinates to exercise leniency. Sources also suggest several Army commanders may have been arrested for being too lenient or refusing to carry out the orders of General Than Shwe. The religious boycott might, therefore, in my opinion, further exacerbate the fissures that already exist inside the military. Both First Lady Laura Bush and Chairman Lantos last week encouraged the soldiers to think about their actions. Mrs. Bush called on them not to shoot the demonstrators but to "join the movement". Chairman Tom Lantos added to this point by encouraging Burmese Army leaders who want to side with the democracy movement to choose this particular time to make their move. He said it would be a "turning point in history" if they did so.
What can the international community do? At the government–to-government level, everyone is waiting to see the results of UN Special Envoy Gambari's discussions with General Than Shwe and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi earlier this week. It was good that he was allowed to see both of them and engage in a form of "shuttle diplomacy". But so far there is not even the slightest hint of compromise on the part of the junta. The Burmese Foreign Minister's speech to the United Nations confirmed that Burma will not heed the international community and will continue to seek its own path, no matter what. This is what is meant by the so-called "road map to democracy". Mr. Gambari was even shown a public rally by supporters of the constitution drafted by the junta. There seems to be little or no hope that the junta will ever respond to the type of international pressure that has been brought to bear so far. Not even the United Nations makes a difference or even a small dent in the determination of the Burmese generals to ignore world opinion. Any effort on their part to "spin" international opinion by offering talks, visits or other window dressing designed to mislead everyone will not lead to change. For this reason, the US government has announced that it will intensify sanctions and has called on other key players – the EU, ASEAN, China and India – to join the effort to bring democracy to Burma. Meanwhile Burma cannot expect China to defend it as staunchly as usual against increasing international pressure. The junta will surely feel more and more pressured and isolated.
At the grass roots level, although the events in Burma were so ugly, they generated tremendous international attention and sympathy. The whole world was shocked by the violence. Fortunately, the world's media was able to effectively communicate this sympathy and solidarity to the people of Burma. Not only international broadcasters but also famous newspapers, internet blogs, celebrities, religious leaders and millions of ordinary people around the world found ways to reach out and touch the people of Burma last week.
What we are doing at the Voice of America is to keep this communication going. We tell the world what is happening inside Burma. And we do our best to let all Burmese citizens know that they are not alone. We are proud to be able to empower the people of Burma with accurate news about how the world is responding to events inside Burma. We feel our reporting sustains the hope that they need to keep alive so that when their day finally arrives, they will prevail.
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