The UN Security Council has expressed (AP) its concern about the current political situation in Myanmar and has decided to send a special envoy to the country, but efforts at imposing sanctions were blocked by China and Russia with China calling such measures “not helpful” (Reuters). Earlier this year, they vetoed a draft resolution pushed by the United States to put pressure on Myanmar’s government saying the situation did not warrant council action. In a recent report, the Security Council explored options for resolving the situation in Myanmar, even as it conceded “that clear divisions that still exist over the issue will probably prevent any formal action.”
In the meantime, protests have continued despite reports (AFP) of the ruling military junta intensifying its crackdown on dissidents. Violence comes in the wake of new sanctions from Washington. U.S. President George Bush, in his speech at the UN general assembly, announced fresh visa restrictions and financial sanctions against the regime he accused of imposing a “nineteen-year reign of fear.” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also urged the junta to exercise restraint (PDF).
Protests that began last month to address the issue of economic hardship (PINR) have now taken the form of a wider movement, being led by a determined alliance of Buddhist monks, calling for an overthrow (FT) of the junta. Until now, the ruling junta had shown uncharacteristic restraint (IHT) in its actions against the protesters. Such behavior was rare when compared to the bloody crackdown in 1988 that eventually led to the suppression of budding pro-democracy movements.
Some experts attributed the military’s restraint to the influence of its chief ally (The Australian) and economic partner, China. Others think that the junta had also been holding back because monks are highly revered in the country and any violence against them may spark a public outcry. The protests come at a time when the military regime is trying to alter its image. It recently wrapped up a fourteen-year constitutional convention, which the government cites as proof of its sincerity (Myanmar Times) in pursuing reforms. The Economist disputes this conclusion, however, saying the convention only further entrenched the regime’s rule.
Myanmar has long been cited by human rights groups for severe abuses. A 2003 Council Task Force report deemed the country “one of the most tightly controlled dictatorships in the world.” The latest disturbances highlight a less-discussed problem—the plummeting of the country’s economy under a succession of military regimes since 1962. A UN index of human development standards in 2006 ranked Myanmar 130 of 177 countries.
Despite U.S. and EU sanctions, Myanmar’s junta has been bolstered by ties to India and China. Beijing and New Delhi compete for access to Myanmar’s natural resources. A recent report says China’s diplomatic support of Myanmar appears to have played a role in winning a gas contract for PetroChina. India, not to be left behind, pledged $150 million (AFP) in gas exploration in Myanmar despite protests from pro-democracy activists. Beyond energy, India also seeks strengthened ties with Myanmar’s regime on counterterrorism and defense as part of its “Look East” policy (WorldPress.org). Given these circumstances, a new media release by the International Crisis Group notes that only China, India, and, to a lesser degree, the Association of South East Asian Nations have any influence on the military regime.