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Video: Sham elections, nuclear dreams, fading foes. What's next for Asia's bloodiest regime?
Cynicism toward the coming elections is well-founded. Voting is canceled in regions under siege from the junta. Suu Kyi’s party, which won the last elections two decades ago, is disqualified from running. Burmese villagers report official threats to vote for the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party or face prison time.
Still, the benefits of staging an election, even a transparently rigged one, are numerous.
An election will scrub away the stain of dealing with unabashed dictators, particularly among rising economic powers in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. It will smooth the way for more investment from India and, the largest backer, China, which last year boosted Burma investments sixfold to $1 billion.
Even Thailand, gracious enough to host exiles agitating for revolution, is pressing ahead with unprecedented business dealings. Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva also recently helped negotiate one of the largest potential Burma investments ever: a $13 billion Thai-built deepwater port in coastal Burma.
The United States, sure to reject election results, is also drifting toward a less provocative anti-junta position. American officials, among them U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, hope to lure the junta away from reputed plans to acquire nuclear weapons through North Korea.
“The elections are a huge threat,” said Khin Ohmar, a pro-democracy exile who fled Burma in 1988. The international community is dangerously close, she said, to deciding Burma has entered a “post-conflict transition stage.”
This is NGO-speak for a nation on the mend, in need of aid similar to that showered on nearby Laos and Cambodia after conflict tore apart their societies.
Ohmar fears the arrival of the global donors such as International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, whose funds could “help the regime cling on to power. These agencies would just become their supporting pillars.”
But Heinemann, drawing from his Special Forces experience, said well-intentioned Western aid has already harmed the resistance.
America’s chief foreign aid arm, the U.S. Agency for International Development, has directed the majority of its aid ($34.8 million projected in 2010) toward refugee education, vocational training, medical treatment and pro-democracy classes.
Ethnic tribes such as the Karen, he said, are neglected by a U.S. Congress skittish of aiding groups who maintain guerrilla forces. “People on the inside, they’re absolutely puzzled,” Heinemann said. “Why is America dumping all this money on people who’ve given up? Who are trying to go off to America? What in the world are you guys smoking?”
Instead, the U.S. should fund the ethnic groups’ essential needs — food, shelter, farming supplies — so tribal leaders can invest in their own “fundamental right to protect themselves,” he said. “You don’t have to send them a single bullet. Keep your hands lily white.”
Combined, the various tribes’ forces number about 80,000, enough by Heinemann’s estimate to intimidate the junta into relenting their strikes in ethnic territory. Government and private aid groups focused on refugees and exiles, he said, sponge up the guerrillas’ much-needed funding.
More daring NGOs that train exiles to creep back and support the resistance can’t compete with salaries offered by U.N. agencies, he said. Heinemann’s own non-profit, Worldwide Impact Now, trains promising leaders within “oppressed peoples” to resist their persecutors. They are nearly broke, he said.
“I would maintain that some NGOs kill the people they’re trying to help,” Heinemann said. “They’ve enticed (young recruits) away from the war zone and into air-conditioned comfort in Thailand. NGOs say they reserve the right to hire the best and brightest. Well, guess what happens when that village is attacked where a trained health worker would have been?”
Karen refugees ZuZuu and 19-year-old friend Saw Si Thu say nothing, not a sense of tribal duty, not even a paid salary, could compel them back across the river. The final statements in their tribal oath proclaim that the “recognition of Karen State must be complete” and the Karen people “shall decide our own destiny.”
But ZuZuu and Si Thu have decided that their destiny lies in the West. Their hopes hinge on joining the 300 per week graced with asylum papers and a plane ticket to America, Canada or Europe.
“Of course, I would like to go back someday to Burma. To see my village, maybe after it has democracy,” Si Thu said. “But I don’t want to kill people. I don’t want the SPDC to kill me. So I study and study in the camp because my family has nothing. This is all I can do.”