ANALYSIS / INDEPENDENCE DAY
What is there to celebrate in Burma?
Sixty years of 'freedom' finds a war-ravaged land, a weary people _ and a buoyant energy sector, thanks to complicit neighbours
By KYAW ZWA MOE
''Let us rejoice at the independence which has come to us today, the result of sacrifices undergone by us and those who preceded us in the years that have passed.'' Those are the words of Burma's first president, Sao Shwe Thaike, in his independence message on Jan 4, 1948 when the country gained its independence after nearly 100 years of British rule.
What has the 60th anniversary of Burma's independence brought in 2008? Did it bring freedom, prosperity and happiness?
Sadly, little of that can be found in the country today. Instead, we find more oppression, poverty and misery.
On Independence Day, the then-prime minister U Nu also said: ''There is no room for disunity or discord _ racial, communal, political or personal _ and I now call upon all citizens of the Burma Union to unite and to labour without regard to self and in the interest of the country to which we all belong.''
In contrast, a few months after the country gained independence, civil war broke out between the government and communist and ethnic rebel groups. Since then, civil war has continued to rage across the country.
About 10 years after independence, a coup occurred that, in effect, cut off any real chance for freedom and prosperity.
From then on, the military has had a firm grip on the reins of power.
In the past 60 years, Burma had opportunities to create a democracy with a good economy, but failed. Instead, the country has devoted its energy to in-fighting and disagreement, based on differing political ideologies.
We have to speak honestly. Burma today has few things we Burmese can be proud of.
Politics is a disgrace. Economics is a tragedy. Society itself is exhausted. Seemingly, everyone in the world knows something about Burma, but it's mostly negative.
What will 2008 bring? Sadly again, the future looks like the past.
Politically, the current military regime won't soften its political stand against opposition groups. The detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi will likely celebrate her 63rd birthday party on June 19 alone in custody in her home in Rangoon. Under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years, she will continue to be recognised as the only Nobel laureate in detention.
The junta will blindly continue down its self-created, seven-step road map to what it calls ''democracy'', with its hand-picked delegates. No astrologer can prophesise when this charade will end. The ''first step'' National Convention just concluded and took 14 years.
The junta's notorious prisons will continue to be the home of many of the finest people in the country. Currently more than 1,000 people are unjustly held as political prisoners. Dissidents who fled the country long ago will continue to be denied the right to return home.
The simmering fire in the heart of the Burmese people against the military government won't be extinguished and is likely to flare up again in another uprising like that led by monks in September 2007.
Internationally, more political pressure and targeted economic sanctions are likely to be imposed by the US and the EU. But don't expect the pressure to change the stubborn mindset of the generals, to jump start a genuine political reconciliation for the sake of the people.
Likewise, China and the Asean countries can be expected to hold fast to their infamous non-interference stance, in effect offering the generals protection.
We can expect UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari to make more trips to Burma in his role as mediator between the junta and Mrs Suu Kyi. His trips, however, will sometimes be turned down or postponed by the junta. He is unlikely to return with any tangible results. But he might leave Burma with upbeat comments like ''we are turning a new page''.
Economically, where is Burma heading? An assessment for 2008 by the London-based influential think tank, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), said the country's policymaking will ''remain erratic'', but the energy sector will be fairly buoyant next year.
Certainly, Burma will never face a shortage of customers for its natural resources. Countries like China, Thailand and India will continue to ignore internal humanitarian issues while doing business with the junta.
Burma's natural gas exports will keep Burma's current account in surplus for the next two years, but import costs will rise, partly driven by the rising cost of importing petroleum products, said the EIU.
''But the outlook for the rest of the economy is poor,'' the EIU said. ''Inflation will remain high, and the free-market exchange rate will continue to be subject to downward pressure.''
Actually, Burmese society is chronically ill. Twenty years ago, Mrs Suu Kyi described the 1988 nationwide pro-democracy uprising as a ''second struggle for national independence''.
The second independence struggle is still struggling to keep its momentum against the all-powerful military government.
U Nu, Burma's first prime minister, said on Jan 4, 1948: ''No one will blame us for being jubilant on such an occasion, on such a day, but nevertheless for most of us it is a day for solemn thought. Burma is again free, but we must be fit to maintain that freedom, and we must be ready at all costs to keep Burma free and to make her great.''
Today after 60 years of independence, little _ if any _ jubilation can be found in Burma. It has slowly evaporated over the course of our independence, gained 60 years ago.