Unrest in Burma; Unease in the Twin Cities


For the past two weeks Pyi Maung hasn’t spoken with his parents in restive Burma. It’s one of the longest silences between him and his parents, but it’s for a good reason: He doesn’t want to get his parents in trouble.

The 24-year-old architecture student at the University of Minnesota fears that the repressive military junta in his native country will accuse his parents of being spies for the United States.

“As difficult as it sounds, it’s in [my parents’] interest to not receive a call from us,” he said, referring to himself and his two siblings.

Burma, also known as Myanmar, a name Maung resists because it’s the junta’s choice, has been engulfed in violence for more than a month. Thousands of pro-democracy citizens, led by monks, the country’s top moral authority, took to the streets in mid-August, protesting the military dictatorship’s iron-fist rule.

The military generals, who have ruled that country for nearly half a century, retaliated heavily. They crashed down on the monks and journalists — the most violent repression since 1988 when the last episode happened. Dozens are confirmed dead.

“I’m frustrated with the violence and the torture,” said Maung, who is one of about 1,000 Burmese immigrants in Minnesota. Last week, more than 300 Burmese and their supporters held a rally at the state capitol to shed a light on their plight.

The United States and the European Union have ratcheted up sanctions — a step that Maung says is too little too late.

“What would be more effective,” he said, “is a full-fledged United Nations military intervention.”

Experts say that an intervention is unlikely, mostly because the regional power China, a close ally of the junta, has long opposed any U.N. action. A more realistic approach, experts say, would be to seek some compromise between the military rulers and the pro-democracy groups.

“We call for the setting aside of violence and the courage to work nonviolently for national reconciliation to achieve genuine and peaceful democratization,” said Mel Duncan, the executive director of the Minneapolis-based Nonviolent Peaceforce, a nonprofit organization that promotes peace through nonviolent means. “There now exists an opportunity for peace.”

A U.N. special envoy met last week with junta leaders, and, separately, with Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate who is widely believed to have won the 1990 general elections in Burma. Kyi, a pro-democracy opposition leader, has been under house arrest since then.

Maung, the University of Minnesota student, said that e-mail communication ended when junta officials cut off the country’s two internet service providers and that he has resorted to a few blogs that are still able to smuggle video footages.

Maung said he hopes to add voice to millions of people who are expected to hold worldwide rallies this Friday.