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BKK POST: Taking care of business (r)

Bangkok Post May 17, 1998 



              Taking care of
              business in Burma

              If James Mawdsley's intention in crossing illegally into Burma
              was indeed to gain publicity about the struggle for democracy
              there, he only partially succeeded. It has been limited here and

              If it was to earn some time in a Burmese jail and experience what
              the political prisoners endure, as has also been reported, it was a
              foolhardy and callous show of "solidarity".

              The young Briton-Australian, already ejected from the country
              once after he chained himself to a Rangoon schoolyard fence and
              distributed pro-democracy leaflets last year, seems intent on
              roiling the waters of an increasingly delicate scenario in Burma.

              Last week he strolled across the border from Thailand, having
              deliberately left his passport behind along with his would-be
              colleagues in the exiled All Burma Students Democratic Front,
              and was swiftly scooped up by authorities.

              It is difficult to conceive that the Democratic Front or any other
              Burmese group pushing for democratic reform would encourage
              a foreigner to undertake such a ploy, even if it might manage to
              momentarily embarrass the military government.

              All too many of the Burmese exiles have experienced what
              Mawdsley apparently claimed he wished to experience: the
              rigours of life in Insein Prison. They should know better, and they
              should know that Mawdsley's incarceration would do little to
              budge the government regardless of how much international
              indignation arises over it.

              Nor would Mawdsley's first-hand account of his adventure upon
              his release do much to sway global opinion.

              Brickbats are thrown and diplomatic ties severed, but the facts
              "on the ground" are relentless in their harsh reality: The ruling
              State Peace and Development Council is not about to swing to
              the left for any reason, nor let up in its tireless efforts to suppress
              those who say it should.

              Just as Mawdsley was crossing into the twilight zone of Burmese
              justice and giving British and Australian embassy staff a
              headache they could do without, a top Singapore cabinet
              minister visiting Rangoon reaffirmed that the outside world - he
              specified the West - can mind its own business and leave Burma
              alone. Southeast Asia, he intoned, can take care of its own.

              Singapore's vast investments in Burma, along with those of the
              rest of Asean, are testimony enough of that. But by "taking care",
              the minister no doubt was also referring to the twice maligned
              and thrice defended "constructive engagement" policy by which
              Asean is supposedly edging Rangoon toward acceptability.

              "Taking care" thus means allowing Burma to describe the writing
              of a history of the student democratic movement as "treason" and
              "terrorism" and to jail its author, Ko Aung Htun, for seven years
              for putting pen to paper. With its increasingly warm financial and
              military ties to China, Rangoon had the audacity this month to
              denounce Ko Aung Htun as "a communist", primarily because he
              is acquainted with some other "communists".

              Perhaps sharing a cell with the likes of Ko Aung Htun was what
              Mr Mawdsley had in mind. Ko Aung Htun would no doubt
              assert that he, for one, never did wish to experience life in a
              Burmese jail, and sincerely hopes that on the eve of his release,
              his jailers do not quiz him about his beliefs, as they often do to
              political prisoners in such circumstances, and then arbitrarily
              extend his sentence another few years.


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Last Modified: Sun, May 17, 1998