Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Junta in Burma Must Fall

I was a student at Dhaka University in the-then East Pakistan when one of the deadliest storms in history struck the province’s coastal regions on the night of November 12, 1970. The Bhola cyclone took an estimated 500,000 lives. Even now, almost four decades later, I get nightmares remembering the bloated bodies of children floating on low-lying islands and rivers.

The military government in power in West Pakistan, led by General Yahya Khan, responded to the disaster with … silence. When the world erupted with outrage, the General ordered his minions to mount a relief operation pathetically inadequate to the devastation wrought by the cyclone.

Economic and political oppression of the eastern wing by the western wing had become the modus operandi within months of Pakistan’s independence in 1947 from India. For almost a quarter century, anger had been rising among the Bengali-speaking people of East Pakistan at the blatant usurpation of power by the ruling coterie of West Pakistan.

The 1970 cyclone was the last straw. East Pakistanis realized that the status quo could be tolerated no longer. A month later, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League won a landslide victory in the national election. The choice was clear: either allow, as the constitution demanded, the Awami League to form the central government, or get ready for secession.

General Yahya Khan’s brutal crackdown on unarmed civilians of East Pakistan is among the worst genocides of the 20th century. Over a million people were killed in nine months but that could not stop the inevitable. East Pakistan became the independent nation of Bangladesh in December of 1971.

While several factors contributed to the birth of Bangladesh, the Bhola cyclone was undoubtedly a catalyst of sorts. Even to those diehard loyalists who wanted the country to remain intact, the brutal indifference of the central government was impossible to ignore.

Fast forward 38 years. A deadly cyclone struck Burma (Myanmar) on May 2, 2008. Cyclone Nargis has already claimed over 60,000 lives and the toll is likely to exceed 100,000. Close to two million people are homeless and at risk of epidemics and starvation. The Irrawady River Delta is a scene of death and destruction that reminded me of what I had seen in 1970 in coastal Bangladesh.

But the similarities do not stop there, for Burma has been in the grips of its military since 1962. The current junta seized power in 1988 and renamed the country Myanmar. It is among the most repressive regimes the world has ever known. The Burmese live in fear and misery. The despised generals, operating in a time warp, crushed an uprising by monks - the Saffron Revolution - in September of last year. Peace activist and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for much of the past 18 years.

The Burmese are among the most enterprising and industrious people on earth. Visitors to Cox’s Bazar in Chittagong, Bangladesh, that shares border with Burma, can see examples of their creativity in the their unique farming methods, in the design and manufacture of pearl jewelries, and in the soaring beauty of their pagodas. The junta is relentlessly crushing the spirits of these peaceful, freedom-loving people . Led by "Supreme Leader" Than Shwe, the generals are preventing humanitarian aid to reach grief-stricken Burmese. They added insult to injury by engaging in a sham referendum in the midst of sputtering relief efforts to perpetuate their tyranny.

The generals must be overthrown. The West, particularly the United States, must provide overt support to Burma’s government in exile without fearing any backlash from China. Even an outright invasion should not be ruled out. In fact, that may very well be the best option. At the very least, the United Nations must put together a genocide tribunal for Shwe and his fellow criminals. Simply waiting for the generals to die or disappear will not work. Conscientious people around the world must convince their respective governments to rid Burma of the junta that has all but ruined this pastoral South Asian country. If cyclone Nargis can be the catalyst for freedom in Burma, perhaps the thousands of lives lost will not have been in vain.

No comments: