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Stewardship and Trusteesh
  By A.J. Philip  
  I ACCOMPANIED Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his visit to South Africa on the occasi  
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Letter to Metropolitan
  By Rev A.P. Jacob and five other priests  
  Most Rev. Dr. Joseph Mar Thoma Metropolitan Most Rev. Dr. Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar  
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Back to infancy -- they n
  By Shaheen Chander  
  ENJOYING a relaxed weekend, I was checking updates on the Facebook page. I came across a b  
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  Tragedy of Burma  
  From riches to rags  
  BURMA was one of the richest nations in not just Southeast Asia but the whole world. I grew up answering the question in general knowledge tests, "which is the largest rice-growing country in the world?" A Burmah-Shell fuel station close to my house told me that Burma was rich in fuel resources too. The election of U Thant as the first non-European Secretary-General of the United Nations spoke eloquently about the clout Burma enjoyed in international circles.

My interest on Burma grew stronger when I began hearing stories about my father's experience as a soldier deployed in the Burmese sector during the Second World War. In that War, the British were able to capture Burma back from the Japanese.
My interest was solidified when I interviewed U Nu, who was removed from power in a military coup and was given asylum in India. A friend of Jawaharlal Nehru, he wanted to spend his last days in Burma and the military regime allowed him to return on the express condition that he would not take part in politics, a condition he could not fulfill for long.

U Nu refused to discuss politics but, instead, spoke about the hospitality the people of Bhopal extended to him during his "exile" in the city of lakes. What gave him company those days were books, mostly religious. It was against this backdrop that I accepted an invitation from Prof Sanjoy Hazarika, Chair, Centre for Northeast Studies, Academy of Third World Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, to attend a seminar on "The paranoia of unpredictability: Is democracy possible in Burma/Myanmar?"

It was one of the most useful seminars I ever attended. Speakers representing a wide spectrum of opinion in Burma vividly portrayed the situation in the country and it made me sadder and sadder by the minute. Over three decades of military rule has ruined the country with one-third of the population now living below the poverty line. As a wit remarked, "Burma is the best country to fly away from". But even that is difficult with the ruling junta exercising tight control over every aspect of life in the country. Even so, lakhs of Burmese have found shelter in countries like India, Thailand and Bangladesh. There are 5,000 of them in Delhi alone.

While neighbouring countries like India and China are registering near double-digit growth rates, Burma is really the pits. The stories of starvation, deaths and destruction that journalists who managed to visit the country in the wake of the deadly cyclone 'Nargis' that hit the nation in May 2008 showed how insensitive the junta has been to the woes of the common man.

The photos of the palatial buildings in the new capital the junta has constructed away from Rangoon that 'The Economist' carried stood in sharp contrast to the polythene sheets, supplied by international agencies, that provided roof to the thousands hit by the super-cyclone.

Though insulated from the people, the military has its barracks in every nook and cranny of Burma as photographs shown at the seminar revealed. How does the military thrive when the people are starving? It generates money by selling natural gas and plundering other natural resources like gems and rubies, timber and uranium. Money that should feed the hungry millions is diverted to making nuclear bombs, clandestinely though.

In a country where even access to the Internet is controlled, the people have few options. A youth can either join the military or become a Buddhist monk. The large army of monks, disproportionate to the population, is an indicator of the paucity of opportunities, rather than the high religiosity of the people. An army job is a no-no for the non-Burmans and non-Buddhists, who cannot get promotion beyond the rank of Colonel. Discrimination is rampant and, often, violent against minorities, both religious and ethnic. Even sexual attacks are part of the junta's strategy to keep protest under control.

In August 2007 when the Buddhist monks revolted against the doubling of the fuel price, there was a ray of hope that the regime would collapse under the weight of popular resentment. But the junta suppressed the "Saffron Revolution", as it was called, with the same ruthlessness with which it has been suppressing the pro-democracy movement of Nobel-laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. International sanctions have hit the poor, rather than the junta which has been cleverly exploiting India-China rivalry to its advantage.

China, a Communist country, has no compunction in dealing with the junta, whether it is in supplying weapons or buying gas or helping build its nuclear reactors. Incidentally, unlike Burma, China holds periodic elections, though under a one-party system. India, hailed as a vibrant democratic country, is prepared to cozy up to the dictators so much so that at the height of the "Saffron Revolution", it sent a Cabinet minister to break bread with the rulers and sign a memorandum of understanding.

And when one of the pillars of the military regime died, India sent an official delegation to represent the country at his funeral. It did not matter that thousands of people who died at this dictator's hands must have turned in their graves when India lowered its flag to condole his death.

It is a different matter that India's unethical diplomacy has not brought any dividend, diplomatic or monetary. There are grandiose plans to link Burma by road and rail with India but they remain where they are -- on the drawing boards. Is there light at the end of the Burmese tunnel?

Elections are slated to be held in 2010. Will it result in the restoration of democracy? Or, will it be as flawed as the farcical referendum the junta organized to throw dust in the eyes of Burma-watchers the world over? There are two views on the proposed elections.

Those who think that some democracy is better than no democracy support the elections that guarantee 25 per cent seats in the Legislature to the military and rules out election of a woman as President. Dr Tint Swe, who represents the National League for Democracy, the preeminent political party in Burma, has, therefore, a lot of questions to ask, whether the elections will be free and fair, whether they will be supervised by international observers etc, before he can say that his party will contest the elections.

There is nobody to answer him, though those representing the ethnic groups are ready to give the elections a chance. Most insurgent groups in Burma have entered into ceasefire agreements with the regime, which has systematically reduced the ethnic minorities to no better than border security guards. The only hope lies in people like Ms Thin Thin Aung, a resident of Delhi, who has been organizing Burmese women in the relentless fight against the ruling junta using all the means at their disposal, including an Internet-based newspaper to reach out to them.
Photo: Ms Thin Thin Aung at the seminar -- Photo by A.J. Philip
  By  A.J. Philip  
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