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Saffron Revolution: Burma on the Brink of Change?

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Several people have contacted me asking if I am plan to go to Burma. The answer is no. I know that even going down to the embassy to enquire about a visa would be a waste of time. It’s a miracle that they are giving tourist visas at all, but I think I might give the officials a good chance to laugh in my face if I showed up with a passport donning a media visa for Afghanistan and try to convince them that I am just a tourist wanting to have a look around their country’s former capital where, by the way, 100,000 people have gathered to protest against the junta. I would love to go. I would drop everything to go. I could try to sneak across the border at Mae Sot, but without a visa I wouldn’t last a New York minute en route to Rangoon, a white face plainly standing out among the Burmese masses. A few days of prison and back to Bangkok….not really worth it.

If I did somehow manage to get a visa, there is no way I could walk around with a camera, attempting to document the situation, and from what I understand, reporting via Internet is becoming just as unlikely. The regime has been fast at work, shutting down Internet cafes, slowing down the government controlled service, and cutting off mobile phone service, a very effective means of limiting the amount of information that is exiting the country. I watched CNN’s report late last night and their journalist was reporting from Bangkok. What a joke. If they can’t get their guys in, I don’t stand a chance.

Yesterday morning I read that officials had asked the hospitals to clear beds in preparation for a large influx of new patients. The Burmese regime doesn’t play the bluff game. We are all standing by, watching with bated breath, hoping on the one hand that the memory of the 1988 massacre hasn’t completely broken the Burmese spirit, that the monks will lead their people to somehow affect positive change in one of the poorest and most oppressed nations in the world. Maybe the Nepalise revoltution set the stage. But on the other hand, given the history of the rulers, we hope that the dust will settle, that people will return to their homes, that the “warning shots” will scare them off and that there will be no more bloodshed.

The UN has been making some noise, urging the Burmese government to issue their special envoy a visa, and cautioning them that a violent suppression would lead to more sanctions. But so far, ASEAN has pretty much sat on its hands. The Southeast Asian brotherhood has stood by, turning its head the other way, for 10 years as one of its filial members brutally oppresses its people. If its active members fail to move on this issue, it will be clear once and for all that its regional goals are in effect, just ruminations made of hot air.

I have little faith that Thailand wants to play an active, positive role in this play. The current regime, which usurped power in a bloodless coup last September, might even be a little jealous of its neighbor’s ability to cut down opposition so bluntly, but the Thai economy is far too dependent on tourism and trade with the West to get away with such acts. Still, Thailand has its own dictatorial tendencies. Its flirtations with democracy have been, at best, cosmetic, and it seems to care very little about the fate of its neighbors. Countless Cambodians were sent back across the border to their deaths during the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese reigns, for one, and last year’s visa law crackdown was made in an attempt to limit Burmese influx. Thailand has a not so glorious history in this sort of story. In October of 2005 the Thai government planned to send back 80,000 of the estimated 150,000 Karen refugees back to Burma, but eventually gave up under pressure from Western governments. Just a few months ago they sent about 100 Hmong refugees back to Laos, the Hmong being an indigenous people, actively hunted by the communist regime.

Thailand is famous for its smile, its full moon parties, its white sand beach resorts, its fresh food and friendly people. I know a lot of people who come here, some just to visit, some to live, who still hold on to that fairytale image of the magical kingdom of Thailand, but that mirage faded for me a long time ago. The whole region is wrought with corruption, oppression and intolerance, and just like everywhere else, if your neighbor kills his brother, you just turn the other way, unless, of course, there is some substantial resource to be gained.

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RELATED: Burmese Allegedly Kill Two Foreign Journalists.

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