Trouble flares in frequently ignored corners of Southeast Asia
In East Timor citizens protest controversial prime minister appointment, while Myanmar (Burma) sees rare democracy demonstrations.
Southeast Asia has seen increased unrest recently following the appointment of independence hero Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao as East Timor's new prime minister and a rare bout of democracy protests in Myanmar, one of the world's most repressive states.
The trouble in East Timor, the tiny Southeast Asian country that earned its independence from Indonesia in 1999, stems from the exclusion of Fretilin, the revolutionary movement Mr. Gusmao once helped lead, from control of the government following elections in July. Through Fretilin was the top vote winner, Gusmao managed to cobble together a parliamentary majority to take power, reports Bloomberg.
The United Nations and a contingent of 1,000 Australian peacekeepers have been caught in the middle of allegations from Fretilin supporters that they unfairly supported Gusmao's election. Australian troops have been the particular target of abuse of Fretilin leaders, as the Sydney Morning Herald reports.
Australian troops in East Timor stole flags of the deposed Fretilin party, tore them up and wiped their backsides with them, Fretilin claimed yesterday.
The incident has inflamed an already volatile situation in the country and it demonstrated the partisan nature of the Howard Government's intervention there, said Fretilin's vice president, Arsenio Bano, and the nation's former prime minister, Mari Alkatiri.
Mr. Alkatiri told the Agence France-Presse news agency the incidents were so serious that all of Australia's troops deployed in the country should go home. "It would be better for Australian troops to just return home if they cannot be neutral," said Alkatiri, Fretilin's powerful secretary-general.
Australia has had a major military presence in the tiny country – home to fewer than 1 million people – since Indonesia's bloody withdrawal in 1999. It is concerned about the possibility that a failed state on its doorstep could become a major transit point for narcotics and people-smuggling. But keeping the peace without taking sides is getting harder there, as Thursday's events illustrate, reports the Associated Press.
Hundreds of rampaging youths torched dozens of houses and clashed across East Timor on Thursday, leaving at least two people dead, the U.N. said, in violence sparked by the appointment of independence hero Xanana Gusmao as prime minister.
In one town near Dili, international peacekeepers "managed to control the situation, but the market was almost completely destroyed in the fighting," the UN said. Two people were killed in violence in the central district of Ermera, the UN said, without providing further details.
East Timor's experiment with democracy has been on rocky shoals lately, and it appears that Fretilin is not willing to accept the rules of the parliamentary game. On Fretilin, the political party's blog, the group's vice president Mr. Bano alleged that the "overriding aim" of Australia's military presence in the country is "the removal of the democratically elected FRETILIN government and its replacement with the illegitimate government of Jose Alexandre Gusmao."
Meanwhile in Myanmar, about 40 democracy activists defied government arrests and intimidation on Thursday to protest in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar. The demonstration led to the arrests of about a dozen of the protesters and rough treatment for reporters seeking to cover the event, the Associated Press reports. It was the third protest in the past week.
Authorities ordered bystanders, and especially reporters, out of the area as the protesters were overwhelmed after a 30-minute stand off. Some reporters were roughed up by security personnel who shouted abusive language.
Protesters sat on the pavement and formed a human chain in an attempt to prevent officers from dragging them into the waiting trucks and buses. A dozen protesters, however, were forced into the trucks.
Wednesday's march was broken up prematurely when a gang of government supporters assaulted some protesters with sticks and seized eight who were accused of being agitators, witnesses and participants said. The eight were later freed unharmed.
The demonstrations came after the arrests Tuesday of leaders of the group 88 Generation Students. It has been defying the generals by staging petition campaigns, prayer vigils and other activities urging the release of [Ang San] Suu Kyi and other political prisoners and calling for an end to military rule that began in 1962.
The arrests have been condemned by the US and other states who have accused the military regime there of intimidation and the torture of their political opponents, reports Agence France-Presse.
"The United States government condemns the Burmese regime's arrest of Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and several other pro-democracy activists… for organizing peaceful demonstrations to express public concern about recent increases in the price of fuel," State Department spokesman Gonzo Gallegos said.
"The United States calls for the immediate release of these activists and for an end to the regime's blatant attempt to intimidate and silence those who are engaged in peaceful promotion of democracy and human rights in Burma," he told reporters.
The military generals in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, crushed a pro-democracy uprising in 1988, leaving hundreds if not thousands dead. The 88 Generation students group was formed by veterans of the bloody uprising.
The Guardian reports that the key event prompting the latest protests – the fuel price increase – was likely precipitated by the debts the government has taken on to build a new capital in the jungle.
No explanation was given for the price rises. But analysts believe the junta's order for ministries to boost revenues was down both to economic mismanagement and the crippling $1bn (£500m) construction bill for the new capital.
Sunai Thasuk, a Burma consultant for Human Rights Watch, believes the economic crisis matches that of two decades ago. "The conditions that led to the crackdown in 1988 are very similar to those now," he said. "We've got hyper-inflation but the people continue to be robbed by the regime. People are extremely angry. Potentially we could see a chain reaction. That's why we've seen this very harsh reaction against the leaders."
The Irrawady Magazine, run by Burmese dissidents from inside Thailand, argues in an editorial that the tough economic conditions inside the country and government mishandling of the problem are setting the stage for mass unrest not seen there since the late 1980s.
A repetition of the economic hardship of 1987 that brought the people out onto the streets, together with increasing socio-political problems, is now driving the country again to the verge of civil unrest. The regime's high-handed decision to double and triple fuel prices has sparked demonstrations in Rangoon and elsewhere.
If the military regime continues its tough, uncompromising and dishonest stand toward its own people and persists in trying to escape from the reality of the present downward sociopolitical-economic situation, the country is likely to again encounter a bloody social uprising in the near future.
To avoid such a calamity, the only solution –which the regime has so far stubbornly rejected –is for the military to relax its long-held grip on power and to sit together with all parties, including the National League for Democracy, ethnic minority parties, and ethnic cease-fire groups, and discuss a political resolution to the crisis.