Burma: Should We Care?—

The following appeared in The Free Press on April 6, 2021

The above was the title of a piece that I wrote, published in The Free Press 14 years ago, in October 2007, following the massacre of monks in the streets of Rangoon by the military regime. Nothing has changed. Today, in early April, over 500 protestors have been killed by the new dictator, who took over February 1. It is heartbreaking to be retired in Maine and observing, yet again, decade after decade, the cruelty in that land.

I have had a special relationship with Burma for close to 60 years and it grieves me.

As a young man, I visited a liberated enclave in the Mon area of Burma over the Thai border. It was pure chance that I met a guerrilla leader who explained the situation to me, how the ethnic minorities had been persecuted almost non-stop since independence from Britain after WW II. The leader, Nai Shwe Kyin, remained a friend until he died in his 90s. This encounter led to my meeting the heads of numerous resistance movements over the decades, Karens, Kachins, Shans, Chins, etc., and witnessing their struggles. I developed a deep affection for these peoples and visited them often in their jungle headquarters. In time, I became a reporter in Southeast Asia and covered this as a sideline to the war in Indochina.

As U.N. Special Envoy to Burma Christine Schramer Burgener said on March 31, the country is about to become “a multidimensional catastrophe in the heart of Asia.” She added that the possibility of a major civil war looms, and that Burma “is on the verge of spiraling into a failed state.”

As the killing continues, foreign leaders are grappling for a solution. Japan has cut off further economic aid. The U.S. has sanctioned businesses and family members connected to the regime. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who fomented the coup, and who locked up the titular head of state, Aung San Suu Kyi, known as The Lady, is so far unmoved. As the killings continued he appeared in his tux to celebrate Armed Forces Day. The Southeast Asian bloc, ASEAN, has issued lame statements. Moscow is evasive. Beijing is obtuse. Yet, it is China, with its heavy investments in rail, roads, ports, pipelines and mining that probably has the most to lose if it does not try to restrain the junta in its fortified new capital of Naypyitaw. Will China act to pressure the “tatmadaw” — the military which runs the country as a warrior caste — to go back to its barracks? Can some tenuous democracy be reinstated?

One hope is that the new generation of young Burmese, Generation Z, so far uncowed by the overwhelming military, is digitally savvy. It has been able to organize strikes that have shut down banks, commerce and transport and sidestep the regime’s new cybersecurity laws.

But can it outwit a regime that employs jet fighters, drones, tanks, armored cars, etc., that have been traditionally supplied to it by a myriad of “friendly” nations from Russia to Israel? Once again, as after the military suppression of 1988, when thousands of youth were shot in the streets, a portion of resisters will have to flee to the enclaves of the ethnic minorities along the Thai border in the hopes of obtaining military training. It is already happening. But along the border, innocent people are already being shoved back by the Thai authorities while being bombed by the uniformed cult that runs Myanmar like its own fiefdom.

It is a bitter world that we live in today. Should we care what happens in Burma? It seems a long way from Maine.

Keith Lorenz, Rockport
Jefferson Fellowship, 1982
Environment & Policy, Fellow 1982-1983