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Could Burma Be Egypt?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
March 9, 2011

Members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party shout during a protest outside the house of their leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in Yangon on November 13, 2010.

Members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party shout during a protest outside the house of their leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in Yangon on November 13, 2010. (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters)

In today’s Asia Times, longtime Burma activist Aung Din wonders whether Burma, surely one of the most repressive states in the world, could follow the example of Arab protestors in countries from Egypt to Oman to Libya. The Burmese, after all, have not been shy about standing up before, from the massive 1988 protests that eventually led to a free election in 1990 that was annulled to the “Saffron Revolution” of tens of thousands of monks in Rangoon four years ago. And, as Aung Din notes, there are some similarities between regimes like Egypt and Burma – the nepotism and venality of high levels of the government: In Burma, a video leaked to YouTube showed the wedding of Senior General Than Shwe’s daughter, an almost-royal affair in which she was showered with gifts and wore enough diamonds to shame even Naomi Campbell.

But, though I wish otherwise, I don’t think Burma is going to follow Egypt any time soon. For one, the Burmese military, unlike the Egyptian one (but similar to Muammar Gadaffi’s loyal forces) has proven, time and again, willing to gun down its own people to maintain the regime’s control. Whether in 1988, or 2007, or many times before, Burmese soldiers have followed orders, and the top levels of the regime did not split, providing an opportunity for pro-democracy protestors to take advantage.

In addition, though cellphones and social media have begun to spread in Burma, their coverage within the country is miniscule compared to most Arab nations. The price of cellphones in Burma is still kept staggeringly high by the regime, to limit their spread, and the Internet is much more tightly controlled than in most Arab-Muslim nations. Though some activists did use cellphone cameras and the Internet to get photos of the Saffron Revolution out to the world, it is doubtful that they could be used as a device to foment mass protest within Burma.

Finally, despite their seeming xenophoboia and isolation, the Burmese generals have learned to play the international community very well. Using the backing of China, they have pushed the U.S. to reconsider its relationship with the country–and likely will offer the world little payoff for new engagement. A Burmese spring, alas, seems far off.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Sourabh Gupta

    Agree, it won’t be the case … though it is ironic how similar the Egytian and Burmese regimes were in some respects, until recently.

    In both Egypt and Burma, society labored under harsh “emergency” laws.

    In both Egypt and Burma there was no legislative oversight of the military budget.

    In both countries – though nominally having multiparty systems, establishing a party effectively required permission from incumbent (and dominant) political machine – NDP party in Egypt; junta/USDP in Burma.

    Though both, theoretically, had/have ‘democratically’ elected legislatures, in practise a third of the upper house was appointed by Mubarak-military and a fourth in today Burma by the junta.

    Judging how long it took for the Egyptians with their far more advanced socio-economic and civil society development to cast-off their rulers (which is still in an uncertain transitory phase), it is pretty much clear the Burmese polity, going forward, will bear far more resemblance to Cambodia’s then Egypt’s for quite a while.

    Best, Sourabh

  • Posted by Peter Popham

    You are out of date: the price of cellphones plummeted last year, you can get a Burmese sim for a few dollars and in Rangoon they are no longer the status symbol of the rich but the tool of the poor, spreading fast as in India

  • Posted by burmese

    @Peter Popham You are not right. The cellphones price are still expensive. Government sell 500USD for a SIM card now (compare a few dollars in other countries). That prices is 1500USD in the past.

  • Posted by william

    I stand with AUNG SAN
    cause i believe ,for now only she could do for us .

  • Posted by rohan

    Cellphone prices are through the roof, but 500 usd for a sim card? wow!

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