Malaysia, Burma - our common plight

As the Bar Council-led delegation marched on Putrajaya another larger gathering of distraught citizens gathered in the streets in protest against their rulers.

If there is one common thread in all demonstrations of this nature, it is that people will ultimately take action when they have had enough of bad governance. They are nowhere near the people power proportions of the Marcos era but they spell the beginning of the end of despotism.

There may be few parallels between the situation in Malaysia and Burma but there is a common plight - the lack of democracy and repression, though in different degrees. Malaysia has some semblance of democracy but the Burmese junta is outrightly dictatorial. It is among the poorest countries in the world despite having huge natural mineral and gas resources. Who does not know of Burma's coveted precious gemstones? But despite nature's endowments, bad governance has stunted economic development.

Sadly US-led economic and diplomatic sanctions against the junta have not worked and only caused widespread poverty and suffering. The Burmese army is notorious for its attacks on the tribes people and forcing them into slave labour. Raping, pillage and wholesale burning of villages are well-documented.

Thousands upon thousands of Burmese refugees live along the Thai border and Bangladeshi territories and many have found refuge in Malaysia. But those who do find work pay a high price for the Malaysian permits and also fees to their own Burmese government. Still it is a far cry from the austere life back home.

Perhaps those who advocate economic sanctions hope for a mass political implosion when people take to the streets in huge numbers. But that has to be precipitated by causes that are beyond the normal usual hardships such as we have seen in Burma. In this day and age, it is sad that civilised countries can still turn a blind eye to the atrocities happening in their neighbouring countries in the folly of a policy of non-intervention.

So why do we respond to the cries of those hit by earthquakes in neighbouring countries but remain deaf to the cries of those hit by their generals' soldiers? Such a policy is a betrayal of our human bonds and should be re-considered. In a world of double standards and selfish national interests there is an urgent need for a stronger sense of accountability to one another's humanity.

While India and China and its close neighbours will respond to the latest mass demonstrations differently, the US has increased its sanctions but only more ordinary Burmese will suffer. India needs the gas, but China does not want a repeat of a Tiananmen-type massacre so near the Olympics. India will remain silent and China will press for restraint. But the generals are hard-headed and events in the country appear doomed in bloodshed.

Economic sanctions don't work because the generals are high up on the pecking order and food chain and don't care a hoot about travelling to the United States or Europe and will be the last to die of malnutrition. What is needed is for the countries in the free world, Asean, China and India, to put pressure on the generals to release Aung Sun Suu Kyi and other politicians.

The former is the legitimate person to form government because her political party won the elections fair and square. But Mao Zedong was right in that power does ultimately come through the barrel of a gun as the Burmese generals have proven and will soon show the world again, short of a miracle or direct intervention, of those who have the influence.

In the interest of peace and the welfare of the country, the generals have to come to their senses. This will require a miracle but stranger things have happened. The generals couldn't care less what happens to their people because they are drunk with power and what it brings them. Theirs is a classic modern version of an ancient disease that we read in history books on cruel dictatorships.

The tragedy in the avarice of rulers is that ultimately their people suffer and their descendants and even they themselves inherit a bad legacy. At home, I think none know or feel it more acutely than Anwar Ibrahim and Mahathir Mohamad, former prime minister and deputy prime minister of the country respectively, who were once powerful but are now the government's strongest critics. Surely there must be a message in it for them and all of us, especially those now in power. Make the change or be the future victims of your own bad legacy.

Malaysia's may be a different story from Burma's because its people have enjoyed relative freedom and prosperity. Its government is relatively more responsive and prepared to offer small concessions but still its record of repressive measures and use of unbridled force when necessary in protecting its own interests match those of the worst dictators.

In the recent Batu Buruk incident, the police resorted to using firearms, and two persons were seriously wounded by gunshots, something almost rare in its history of handling peaceful political dissent. Adding insult to injury is the possibility that the government may have staged the violent protests, according to the opposition.

Because it controls the media by licensing and naked intimidation, it has over the years woven a web of control over the major public institutions from the police to the judiciary and manages to carry out its schemes in ways that are hard to counter and expose.

This is to a large part the fault of the rakyat who unlike the Burmese are not yet eating grass and are inordinately tolerant and passive against vulgar corruption and refuse to strongly openly condemn corrupt practices in high places. The media's hands are tied except for intrepid independent blogs and online newspapers that expose all forms of corruption without fear or favour.

This has left an unbalanced and unfair burden on the shoulders of the regular critics and the political opposition. The people's bellies are still full and they have a high threshold for political nonsense including the usual conspiracies to cover up the truth. Meanwhile, the politicians prate and prattle and insult our intelligence.

The level of corruption and allegations of those in power including senior police officers has reached critical proportions. The people's petition, the Bar Council's march, and the litany of letters of protests and public agitations all show a people dissatisfied with the status quo. The government has only itself to blame if it does not put matters right. Perhaps a fob may accept more cover-ups and whitewashing of allegations of corruption.

And only those who don't love their country can allow it to continue to slide down the slippery slope. I don't see how the government can go into damage control without a genuine attempt at redressing the corruption within the system. It is indeed a sad moral crisis that now threatens to destroy the country's integrity and moral conscience if a royal commission and remedies are not adopted to right the wrongs. It does not matter who is guilty but it matters that the government does right.