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Burma on the brink?

Pressure is mounting on Burma's regime. Here's the latest, from the jungle and urban front lines.

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GlobalPost: Good morning and welcome. It’s Thursday, November 18. I’m David Case, editor of GlobalPost’s member and research programs. We have a very special call for you this morning. I have Patrick Winn on the phone with us from Jakarta, Indonesia. Today we’ll be speaking about the latest developments in Burma. Patrick is normally our Bangkok correspondent, but today he joins us from Jakarta, Indonesia, where he’s on assignment.

There have been quite a few developments lately in Burma. As anybody paying attention to the news knows, there were elections on November 7 and subsequently there was the release of the democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, and additionally there’s been a lot of fighting in the mountains and border areas.

Before we begin, I do have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that photographer KC Ortiz is not able to join us today. In recent weeks he’s been traveling with Karen rebels inside Burma. Unfortunately I received an email from him last night saying that while he was supposed to be out of the country by now, some additional reporting opportunities have presented themselves, so he’s still in Burma. He tried his best to find a safe and reliable telephone line to speak from, but we haven’t heard from him today, so we’re assuming he wasn’t able to do that. Burma, of course, is an extraordinarily difficult place for journalists, and as you can see on our site, KC has been producing some striking photographs. He hasn’t been able to give us the specifics of what he’s doing in there now, but we here at GlobalPost are waiting anxiously to hear from him when he gets out of the country.

The good news is that as I mentioned we do have GlobalPost senior correspondent Patrick Winn on the line from Jakarta. Patrick just completed a multipart special project on Burma for GlobalPost. Let me remind everybody that the call will be recorded and posted on the membership site with the transcript. Your lines are currently muted; if you’d like to ask a question, we’ll give you the opportunity to speak up throughout the call, or you can email your question to, and my colleague will be monitoring that email address.

First, Patrick, just to make sure we’re all on the same page, can you give us an overview of what’s been going on lately in Burma?

Patrick Winn: Sure. The most interesting thing that’s come out of Burma in the last few weeks is an election. What’s interesting about the election is that most outside observers don’t really consider it much of an election at all. It was very much rigged. People showed up to the polls with their ballots already filled out for a party that was assembled basically as a proxy party for the military, which has ruled the country since the ’60s.

The last election in Burma was 20 years ago, but the results were annulled, and the person who won the prime minister’s seat, Aung San Suu Kyi, was never allowed to govern. Instead she was imprisoned or confined in some way, and has been pretty much ever since. So that’s the big news out of Burma. The other news is that there’s fighting somewhat related to the election in eastern Burma. There are a great number of ethnic tribes there that maintain their own guerrilla militias. They’ve been urged to step down by the military government and become a border guard force. Some of them have complied, some of them have not, and right now there’s some pretty intense fighting. If media were allowed in Burma, we would know more, but we don’t know all that much about how serious the fighting is right now, only that it’s definitely happened.

GlobalPost: OK. Now the regime that rules Burma has a terrible reputation, one of the worst in the world as a major abuser of human rights. They’ve been in power for almost 50 years now, and they are actually quite well off as well, as anybody who’s been to the suburbs of Rangoon knows. They live nicely. Why take the risk to have elections now? Why are they doing all these things all of a sudden?

Winn: That’s a good question. It’s not much of a risk. The election was pretty much a cosmetic election to improve their image. There was really no risk in this election at all of any change of hands of power, so to speak. They’re not interested in a cosmetic change to get rid of this junta image for the West. In fact, most analysts think that they don’t really care much what America thinks or what the European Union thinks. But having a slightly more clean image will help smooth the way for foreign investment from all these ascendant economies that are closer by. Mainly that includes China, which is a principal backer. But even India is investing somewhat seriously in Burma. Russia, as well; they’ve sold the Burmese military arms; and Thailand, next door, although they are not on great terms, the Burmese military general is reliant on them for energy.

So having a slightly more clean image will scrub away the shame of investing in Burma and makes things a little more easy for them in that regard.

GlobalPost: OK. And why does Burma matter to the outside world?

Winn: Burma matters more than most Americans might think. Here are a few reasons: they’re very resource rich, and all of these resources are going to be exploited by the governments that choose to do business with them; like I mentioned, China, India, Russia, other countries in Southeast Asia. The U.S. will not be doing business with them because there is a pretty strict program of sanctions—the U.S. has determined that their human rights abuses are just too awful to do business with them, and so has the European Union. So there are all these resources that will be exploited by neighboring countries and countries in the region.

Also, they have nuclear ambition. We’ve come to find this year that Burma almost certainly has a nuclear weapons program. I was at a seminar by one of the leading nuclear scientists who has really looked into this and studied the evidence, and he said, Yeah, they’ve got a nuclear program. It’s pretty sad and pretty pathetic right now, but there’s some pretty well-founded reports that they’re in cahoots with North Korea, who have a nuclear program that’s much farther along, and with more cooperation, and with more cooperation, Burma’s nuclear weapons program could really take off in the next, say, 10 to 15 years. And if you know much about the people who are running Burma, that is a very, very scary prospect.

GlobalPost: Interesting. So they’re learning the lessons of the “axis of evil,” so to speak, where if you’re like Iraq and you don’t really have a nuclear program that’s advanced very much, you’re liable to get invaded, or be vulnerable at least, whereas if you’re like North Korea or Iran and you have a more advanced nuclear program, you’re probably safer.

Winn: Absolutely. It’s funny that you mention Iraq because exiles and defectors say that the general that runs Burma, his name is Than Shwe, and the coterie around him are highly paranoid of an Iraq-style invasion, and when they saw what happened to Saddam, that really frightened them, the prospect that the U.S. might invade. And although that’s very unlikely to happen, they do live in fear of that.

GlobalPost: OK. Why don’t you talk a little bit more about these leaders. We don’t know a whole lot about them, do we?

Winn: We don’t know a ton about them. They’re really, really closed off; they don’t give interviews or anything of the sort. They’re highly paranoid, they’re very reliant on fortune tellers when making decisions. Probably the most infamous example is when the senior general decided that all Burmese banknotes needed to be divisible by nine. It changed the currency overnight, and a lot of people lost their savings; that happened in the late ’80s, I believe. You know, we know that they’re not terribly well educated. It is a mistake to think that they’re stupid, or that they’re fools; they’re pretty shrewd, and they’re pretty good at dominating the country. But as far as the ins and outs of their decisions, we have very little insight into that, and I would be willing to speculate that even China, which is their principal patron, doesn’t know all that much about how they make their decisions.

GlobalPost: Burma is one of the few countries in the world, perhaps the only one, where you can visit and pay for things in notes denominated in, if I remember correctly, 45 and 90.

Anyway, so what’s going to change now? They’ve had elections, they’ve freed Aung San Suu Kyi. What we can expect in the coming years?

Winn: Well, you know, they’ll have a proxy military party which will run the country quite like the military has. They will establish themselves as a nation in transition. And this is what a lot of Burmese exiles are in fear of. When you’re a nation in transition, and people think “Oh, you’re making the right steps forward, we’ve got to help them out,” then you get international aid, you get a little more sympathy on the world stage, your mistakes are forgiven. We can look to, let’s say, Laos or Cambodia when they were coming out of heavy conflict, and now both of those countries are now very much reliant on aid. So exiles who would like to see the junta just totally wiped out are afraid that they’re going to get this sort of country in transition status. So that is likely to happen.

The other big development, of course, is the ethnic groups. Let me give a quick primer on the ethnic groups. There are a lot of different ethnic groups in Burma that add up to about 40 percent of the population. It would be like Germans, Brits, Moldovans, Italians all living in the same country and having really not that much in common—a lot of them don’t even share the same language. And the government, the Burmese junta, is very intimidated by them because they maintain guerrilla armies to fight off any incursions. So some of them are starting to prepare for a campaign by the Burmese junta to go in there and really clear them out. They have signed a treaty to fight as one; I think six of the different armed ethnic groups have decided to fight as one, meaning that if one of their territories is attacked, they will all come to the aid of that other ethnic group. So, this sort of fighting is very, very likely to continue, and in fact it has already started.

GlobalPost: You mentioned that at least the Karen war that is going on along the Thai border is the longest-standing conflict in the world right now. Can you talk a bit about what is causing it and what the Karen want?

Winn: Some of the other ethnic groups, the armed ethic groups I mentioned—in fact quite a lot of them—have some sort of ceasefire agreement with the Burmese army. The Karen are the most stubborn. In fact, they have a reputation of being the most stubborn and heartiest fighters, which goes all the way back to the days of the British occupation, when the British used them to help them take on the Burmans. So they just haven’t given up. In fact, a portion of their tribe that is Buddhist, some of them have agreed to work with the junta, but the Christian members of this tribe and their militia have never given up. And that’s why—I’ve visited the refugee camps, there are about 150,000 refugees that have flowed into Thailand and an overwhelming majority of them are from this tribe and most of them are Christian, and they’re sort of kept afloat by Christian aid from the States, you know, little old church ladies from Minnesota to California to the South—everywhere—are sending them money. And that actually helps keep up their fight, so they do have a very interesting U.S. connection.

GlobalPost: Do you see a presence of these Christian missionaries in the refugee camps?

Winn: Oh, absolutely. When you’re looking down on the largest refugee camp—it’s actually kind of pretty, you see the tops of these huts and a scenic mountain range, and then over the hill there’s Burma—when you look down on this camp, you’ll see crosses sticking up into the air. A lot of the members of this refugee camp go to churches that are ministered to by Karen ministers who might be Baptist—in fact, I think most of them might be Baptist; I’m not completely sure about that. But that presence is definitely there in the camps, and it’s my understanding that if you’re not a Christian, if you’re Buddhist, then you kind of get a hard time in the camp. You might get bullied or pushed around, or you might not get special favors. The Christians definitely dominate the refugee camp.

GlobalPost: Are there actual Westerners working in the camps, or is it just mainly their money that supports them?

Winn: There are some Westerners. In fact, I wasn’t supposed to go into the camp. I was snuck in by an American who’s teaching there. He’s allowed to come in and out during the day, but no Westerners are allowed to spend the night. So it’s interesting, you have these Canadians and Brits and Europeans and Americans who are secretly sleeping over in the camps overnight. And, you know, they just cannot go out at night or they’ll be tossed. I sort of learned how much Westerners are scrutinized in the camps when I went for a little walk after spending some time with the refugees, shooting a little video but trying to be pretty discreet and I ran into some Thai soldiers that questioned me, and they tossed me out with a little fanfare.

So the Western presence in the camps by the Thai military, which runs them—you know, they’re not terribly happy that they’re there. They probably know that there’s folks sleeping overnight, but they’re really not supposed to be there.

GlobalPost: What’s the point of sleeping overnight in the camps?

Winn: Well, all I mean is that after sundown, you’re not supposed to be there. You’re supposed to go back to the nearest town in Thailand. So if you want to live there and work full time, you need to disappear into your little area before nightfall and not go out.

GlobalPost: So, we have a situation here where we have a natural resource-rich country with an intransigent dictatorship for nearly 50 years, a nuclear-aspiring country that is suddenly going into motions of democracy. What should the Obama administration do about this? What have they talked about and what are the options?

Winn: Well, after Obama became president, everyone that watches Burma started speculating on what the Obama policy on Burma would be. The George W. Bush policy—you know, he actually brought the issue up at the U.N.—and Laura Bush, the former first lady, went to the same refugee camp that I just described. They made an issue of it, but they were very firm—you know, all about sanctions.

Obama and Hillary have suggested that if the junta would behave a little better and release political prisoners, and cut back on the human rights abuses, and give the democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi her freedom, then they would consider lifting some sanctions. Unfortunately, the government has shown very few signs that they’re interested at all in bending even a little bit. Aung San Suu Kyi was freed, but there are still about 2,000 to 2,500 other political prisoners in prison, just for educating for democracy, that aren’t going to be let out any time soon. So the lure of the Obama administration has not been taken up by the junta so far.

GlobalPost: So it’s unlikely that the Obama administration will actually reduce the sanctions on Burma.

Winn: It doesn’t look very likely right now, no.

GlobalPost: OK. Let me remind anybody who’s joined us today that if you do want to ask a question, you can just jump in. All you have to do is press Star-6 on your phone to unmute your line. We’ll take the first question from a caller if anybody has a question. Any takers? OK, then I’ll continue.

Patrick, what hopes does Burma actually have for becoming a more peaceful and responsible country?

Winn: I’m going to delve into a bit of personal opinion here. I think probably the best hope for Burma would be shifting toward a Chinese-style authoritarianism. I don’t think you can hope for too much better than that. But, you know, if the military rulers were to realize that instead of killing people, you could put them to work and that you could build up a consumer class, a lower-middle class that bought things and contributed to the economy, then they would make more money too, because they’re going to run the show anyway. You know, maybe some pilot programs by NGOs that are considered less threatening to the junta could come in and start a special economic zone, a free trade zone, that would encourage some economic development. What the junta has now is what one expert described to me as a 13th-century mentality of plunder. So when they think about making money, they think of going in and taking it, and basically stopping everyone in their path. They could put people to work and build the economy—you know, you don’t want to shoot someone when they’ve got to be at work in the morning to make you more money. So that’s probably the best hope, although I realize that probably sounds quite pessimistic.

GlobalPost: So an approach like China’s, where the dictatorship actually legitimizes itself by making the lives of its subjects better, whereas Burma’s approach is actually keeping the masses down. There was quite a bit of forced labor in the past. Is that still the case in Burma?

Winn: Oh, absolutely. Some of the more recent refugees I interviewed all said that was sort of the spark that got them to leave their village and come into Thailand. What they do is they’ll go from house to house and see if there are any young men in the house. And if there are, they say, OK, well then you have to help us. Usually it’s porters—you know, they’re not going to hand them guns. But porters for the military—carry this, carry that, build this road, build this bridge. If you don’t have a young guy that can go out and work for them, then they want money as compensation. That is standard operating procedure throughout the areas occupied by ethnic groups in Burma.

GlobalPost: OK. Patrick, returning to the refugee camps, I wanted to ask you about one of your major sources that you quote in your special project for us. His name is Tim Heinemann, and he was a member of the U.S. Special Forces, but it appears that now he’s taken up the cause of revolutionary groups or rebel groups like the Karen around the world. Can you talk a little bit about him?

Winn: Yes. He was perhaps the most interesting figure that I interviewed. He has a very low profile—if you Google this guy’s name, you don’t see all that much. He makes a case that’s a bit controversial. The U.S. Congress is not going to fund armed militias that are fighting the junta. Even though they’re very much opposed to the junta, they’re not going to openly help them arm themselves. I think it conjures up some really nasty stuff about the Contras in the ’80s, and all this other stuff—it’s just not going to happen.

He says that these armed ethnic groups are the only potential for change in Burma. If you put them all together, and they form an alliance—as they just recently have—they number about 80,000. He says that they’re some of the best jungle fighters in the world, and I take it he knows what he’s talking about having had a long career in the Special Forces. He said they can really beat up on the Burmese army pretty good, especially since the Burmese army are largely conscripted.

So he’s not saying that they could take over Burma and lead a peaceful nation into the sunset or anything. But he’s saying that they could agitate the army enough that they would back off, give them space, and allow them some sovereignty. The force that the U.S. backs openly is that of Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy icon, who absolutely deserves her status as a Gandhi-like figure. I mean, she has been through a lot and she has terrific poise, and she’s definitely a great leader. But she doesn’t have any guns, and the people that follow her don’t have any guns. And this Special Forces former colonel would tell you that the only thing the junta is going to listen to is power and force, and the ethnic militias are the only people who can realize that at this point.

GlobalPost: And what exactly is he doing to realize his vision? Is he just advocating, or does he actually assist them?

Winn: Well, you know, when you do these types of stories, you often rely on people who you never end up quoting in the story. And he has some guys, American and British guys who are going inside Burma illegally and offering help to what they would consider the most able leaders within these ethnic groups. So part of my story and a lot of my information relied on them as background.

They don’t have a lot of money—he told me basically his group is broke. But they are advocating for direct funding of these ethnic groups because, as he says, they have every right to defend themselves. That’s a human right.

GlobalPost: His group is called Worldwide Impact Now, which I take it the acronym WIN doesn’t have anything to do with your last name, nor is it a coincidence.

Winn: Yes, it’s probably not coincidence.

GlobalPost: Interesting. And he’s working worldwide, apparently. He’s working with other rebel groups as well?

Winn: Yeah, he’s got a few other countries that he’s working in, although Burma was the original one. He said that over time, as he caught wind of the Burmese situation and he said he sort of became infatuated with it, as many Westerners do, and wanted to help. Now, his position would be not that the U.S. government should send crates of AK-47s and bullets to these groups. He says, as it stands, they’re having to commit so many resources to keep themselves alive—you know, rights, food, shelter, medicine—that they don’t get to spend that much on their personal defense. So his case would be that the U.S. should fund their basic needs—like I said, food, medicine, shelter, etc.—so that they can spend their own funds on self-defense.

GlobalPost: Interesting. So, feed the army, don’t arm the army.

Winn: There you go, yeah.

GlobalPost: We should probably keep an eye on Tim Heinemann and see what he’s up to—sounds like a very interesting fellow.

Winn: Absolutely. Very forthcoming. You know, as a journalist, you don’t run into that many people who produce such great quotes that I had to leave most of them, I had to delete most of them, they couldn’t fit into the story. He makes a very interesting case.

GlobalPost: Yeah, I remember one of them—he talked about the elections “putting a church façade on the whorehouse,” or something like that.

Winn: As a journalist, you don’t get quotes like that too often.

GlobalPost: All right, last question, Patrick, unless there’s somebody else who wants to ask a question. Remember you can press Star-6 at any time to pose a question for Patrick. All right, let me ask you one last question. We’ve been calling Burma “Burma” throughout this entire piece, but the official name of the country is Myanmar, and that has been the case since the early ’90s, I believe. Why this confusion over the name, and which one is the best one to use?

Winn: That is a great question that makes me slightly uncomfortable. The U.S. calls it Burma. England calls it Burma. Why? Because the junta changed the name to Myanmar in 1989, I believe, in a huge social upheaval. People who advocate for democracy in Burma, the good guys, so to speak, continue to use the word Burma to resist this junta-mandated name change. You know, that was a really long time ago, and as I prepared this piece, I was wondering whether or not we should call it Myanmar, which is its official name. It would be as if North Korea said that it had changed its name to “The Great, Exalted, Wonderful North Korea:” the Western press would just laugh, but 20 years into it, if that’s the official name, should we use it? I’m not sure. For the Burmese people and the Burmese language, it’s less of an issue; Myanmar is just a more literary version of the word Burma, which refers to the majority Burman tribe to which the junta below. So, I don’t know. Its name is Myanmar for better or worse. I ended up calling it Burma because I thought it would have better recognition amongst Americans, that they would not quite know what Myanmar was. A lot of people barely know where Burma. And, you know, I sort of took the lead from other media outlets that have continued using Burma, but to be honest I’m a bit conflicted about it.

GlobalPost: All right. Very good. OK, one last opportunity to ask questions—if nobody pipes up, we’ll finish the call at this point. Any takers? We have a shy audience today. Patrick, thanks a million for your thoughts, great job on the series, good luck reporting in Indonesia, and we will speak with you soon.

Winn: Many thanks, and thanks to everyone listening.

GlobalPost: Bye-bye.