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The Whole World Was Watching

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Posted on Jan 22, 2008
protesting monks
AP photo / Mizzima News

Hundreds of Buddhist monks march through Rangoon in late September 2007 in the days before the Burmese military junta’s brutal crackdown.

By Sarah Stillman

When the youths of Burma chanted “The whole world is watching!” through clouds of tear gas last September, it was—for once—an understatement. Cell phone footage of the junta’s violent crackdown made the rounds from Beijing to St. Petersburg. Rebellious monks graced the front page of The New York Times (twice!), and global leaders cheered them on: Desmond Tutu, Laura Bush, the Dalai Lama, Gordon Brown. Everywhere you turned—from late-night TV talk shows to political newsweeklies—the Saffron Revolution was hot.

But then came winter, with new battlegrounds de jour: Kenya, Gaza, Pakistan. In October, CNN’s Anderson Cooper may have pledged his journalistic fidelity to Burma’s 100,000-odd protesters—“We’ll continue to cover this story, no matter how long it takes”—but a mere three months later, while hundreds of monks still languished in Rangoon’s infamous Insein Prison and others continued to flee down the Moei River in inner tubes at night, Cooper had moved on to San Francisco, covering a death-by-tiger at the city zoo.

If only Burma’s junta had the short attention span of U.S. media moguls. To the contrary, the military regime ranks among the world’s most durable autocracies, with a 46-year-long rap sheet of endemic torture, forced labor and extrajudicial executions. If it takes endurance to transform an oil-rich nation of beaches and gemstones into one of the world’s most impoverished states, the Burmese junta has it in spades—along with an uncanny knack for natural-resource trafficking and diplomatic subterfuge. In the 1990s, Burma sold more heroin than any other country on the planet. Elbowed out of the market by Afghanistan, the regime now deals in more hoity-toity cargo—rubies, teak and assorted hydrocarbons—the last of which has been skillfully doled out by Gen. Than Shwe in exchange for more than $2 billion in military equipment from China and India.

But Burma’s democracy movement also has its masterminds. Allow me to introduce Maung Maung. In 1988, the Burmese trade unionist survived the front lines of a violent rally suppression that killed at least 3,000 of his peers. Two decades later, he remains an agitator-in-exile, helping to coordinate last fall’s nonviolent demos from the Thai frontier town of Mae Sot. As secretary-general of the National Council of the Union of Burma, an umbrella group for exiled politicians and ethnic leaders, Maung Maung shuttles revolutionary spores across the border like the Johnny Appleseed of Burmese democracy—everything from educational materials to digital cameras.

I recently caught up with Maung Maung over coffee in Washington, D.C. He’d flown some 17,000 miles to Capitol Hill for another crusade of sorts, testifying before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on the need for toothier U.S. sanctions against the junta. At present, he says, corporations like Chevron can slip through various loopholes in U.S. protocol, funneling millions into—and out of—Burma’s natural gas pipelines. American consumers, too, play a role in funding the regime, thanks to our taste for Burmese gemstones. In 2006 alone, the state-controlled Myanmar Gems Enterprise lapped up almost $300 million from the global ruby and jade trade, a revenue increase of 45 percent from the previous year. 

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What follows are Maung Maung’s observations from inside the Saffron Revolution—about the regime’s penchant for trafficking in dirty stones and child soldiers; about the democracy movement’s love affair with Gmail and satellite phones; and, most of all, about the future prospects for a regime-crippled nation with so much to gain from revolt.

Sarah Stillman: Back in September, the whole world had its eyes on Burma. When the junta began clubbing students and shooting monks, the international community reacted with collective outrage and calls to action. But as we enter 2008, that flurry of attention has subsided ... although, of course, the torture and arbitrary arrests have not. What do you think will happen next within Burma? Do you anticipate a new wave of protests, or is the opposition within Burma in a period of consolidation and reassessment?

Maung Maung: There have been countless activities taking place that haven’t made it into the international news—much of it is happening secretly. Our main focus at the moment is getting the endangered monks and activists into safe homes, moving the resistance leaders out of harm’s way. Many of them are still in situations where they could be arrested at any moment by the regime.

There are also brave groups of young people who are getting together at roadside cafes to tear up copies of The New Light of Myanmar, the regime’s newspaper. They rip it up, throw it on the ground and stomp on it, saying, “We don’t believe this propaganda anymore!” They also held a small protest on Nov. 26, with a group of about 300 people.

So, yes, there is action—quite a lot of action, in fact—but there is not much reporting by the international media. Mostly silence.

Stillman: It’s interesting to hear about these roadside gatherings—I guess young people have always played an important part in telling the regime it has no clothes. ...  Can you talk more about the role that students have played in the movement, from its origins until today?

Maung Maung: Well, students have always been more mobile and flexible in their activism—they don’t have to fear losing their jobs or being unable to feed their families.  That’s one reason they’ve always played such a large role.

The last wave of protests in Burma—the movement that I came out of—took place more than two decades ago now. Young people who were born after that ‘88 uprising weren’t tuned in to the injustices of the regime, at least not in the same ways as those of us who lived through it. And so the younger people often fell for the propaganda of the regime more easily.

But last August and September, the protests let them see with their own eyes what this regime is really about. And so a new breed of activists is rising up and radicalizing. It’s a very hopeful sign.

The regime tried hard to prevent this; they opened karaoke bars and restaurants and things like that, trying to divert young people away from politics and claimed that “democratization” was finally happening.

But they couldn’t cover up all the hardships. And now, after the recent protests, the younger generation is finally asking, “Hmm ... what’s really going on here?” So, it’s a regime that we have to thank for showing a new generation of students, “Hey, this is how bad we really are.” We should thank them for their own stupidity.

Stillman: Let’s talk about the shifts between the 1988 protests and the current unrest. Clearly, one key change has been the rise of new forms of media—cell phones, digital cameras, blogging. ... What kind of impact have these technologies had on dissident culture in Burma? What are the other similarities and differences between the recent protests and ‘88?

Maung Maung: In ‘88, the movement was very different: There were more protesters from all parts of the country and all walks of life. It was much more diverse, in terms of participation. This time, the protests were more confined to the capital city of Rangoon, and monks played a more prominent role than ever before.

But, having said that, there is also the media difference you mention between now and ‘88. When ‘88 took place, very few people knew about it—the news slowly trickled out as we started telling people, and then more people, and then more people all around the world. This time, you’re right, the graphic images could come out right away with the help of new technologies. The activists inside the country have started to use the available technologies to their advantage—the Internet, the cell phone, the satellite phone. We’ve trained more than 200 activists to transmit images from the front lines of the demonstrations, using satellite phones and digital cameras.

Even more incredible, there were live chats coming from inside the country. There are about 50 Internet cafes all over Burma, and young people were able to log into GTalk and say to the rest of the world, “Here’s what is happening on this corner; here’s what is happening on that corner.” Quite a lot of young activists have been trained in how to use Gmail. It is extremely helpful to the movement.


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By Douglas Chalmers, March 29, 2008 at 2:38 am Link to this comment

Asian rice crisis starts to bite - http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/CB6E8E48-C288-4066-90B8-8F23DFDCDFEE.htm

“Worldwide rising demand has seen rice stocks plummet to their lowest in about three decades, with average prices doubling over the last five years.

Earlier this month the UN secretary general warned that global food stocks had fallen to their lowest level in decades, driving prices up and threatening millions with starvation….”

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By Douglas Chalmers, March 20, 2008 at 5:03 pm Link to this comment

Some topics from TalkChina are:-

IT’S TIME SOMETHING WAS SAID ABOUT BURMA!!! http://enpf.chinabroadcast.cn/TalkChina/forums/post/58395.aspx - or open a new topic in “Hot Issues” at http://enpf.chinabroadcast.cn/TalkChina/forums/49/ShowForum.aspx

TIBET QUESTION subforum http://enpf.chinabroadcast.cn/TalkChina/forums/15/ShowForum.aspx - join in or open your own topic.

SINO - US RELATIONS http://enpf.chinabroadcast.cn/TalkChina/forums/17/ShowForum.aspx

BEIJING OLYMPICS http://enpf.chinabroadcast.cn/TalkChina/forums/13/ShowForum.aspx

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By Douglas Chalmers, March 20, 2008 at 5:02 pm Link to this comment

Its utterly pathetic that Truthdig has taken the Tibet blogs off its front page this week despite the continuing turmoil there - makes it hard to genuinely congratulate them on keeping this topic running, uhh.

Nevertheless, you can blog IN CHINA on an English language forum of the China Radio International website (main page at http://english.cri.cn/ ) in BeiJing and listen to music online…..

The TalkChina forum menu is at http://enpf.chinabroadcast.cn/TalkChina/forums/default.aspx

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By British Jew of faith, March 12, 2008 at 3:31 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Jeffrey, You might want to re-think Non Credo’s
point. It’s not so much about what the US is doing
wrong as it is about straightening out the Americans’ priorities. The issue of the fate of Palestine, of war or peace, has always been entirely up to our leadership in Israel. “We” hold total power over the Palestinian population. If we were in the state the Palestinians find themselves in, what would the world say? Show the courage of the Israeli soldiers who have said no to killing of civilians.

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By Douglas Chalmers, March 10, 2008 at 10:26 am Link to this comment

I wonder if this would have received more attention if the reporter was American?

Japanese Reporter Shot Dead by Burma Military http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFrs9ho673g&feature=related

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By Thanks, March 8, 2008 at 10:36 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thank you for this important article.

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Purple Girl's avatar

By Purple Girl, March 6, 2008 at 3:31 am Link to this comment

Outrageous this particular religious group is the focus of any violence.They preach no hate, intolerance, no fear, no judgement no condemnation.
How tell tale when such a group is allowed to be victimized and yet no other religious leaders bother to take up their cause. where is the Christians, the Muslims the Jews- oh yeah slaughtering each othe ras ususal.
Perhaps it is out of envy they do nothing. Kill the most faithful and kind of mans religions and there will be no glaring light upon their heretical doctrines.Instead these relgious folks are spewing more rhetoric about their ‘rightful place in Gods eyes’ and others demonic alliegences.Why do these groups never take on the Buddhists- becasue the Buddhist won’t play their insolent game of who “Daddy loves more”. WE are all the creation of ‘God’/nature. We are the only species who are capable of changing th eworld with just one. We ahve been give Gifts and tools by which we are to honor and care for- WE ARE THE STEWARDS- our existence requires we keep an eye on all, manage and pass on into the future- Man’s Prime Directive, meaning of life. WE must ‘Pay it Forward’
My heart and soul go out to the Monks and their followers. Many of US around the world see your philosophy’s Beauty and Logic. Mankind is still struggling for the right to religious freedom and expression, Through the Snake Oil doctrines that hold us back and damn Us and our decedants to this day. These ‘religious’Orgnaizations are the first Horseman. The circular logic which has enslaved man for millenia. they have bound, gagged and tortured Us- becaseu they say they have the right to. Reality is that only by our concession do they weld such power. A charade, a fallacy, A SIN Against God Nature and Mankind. The first ‘Tool’ that was made into a Shackle. The First Rider Mounted and ready to ride against Us. Then it gave birth to ‘Gov’t’ the second Shackle, the second Rider, who covered or legitimized the First. But how best to keep the masses controlled- through their labor and their consumption. Big Business,the Third Shackle/Rider. Control all necessary Natural Resources, control wages, control market availability and options. Ensure Indentured Slavery by Instiutionalized Imbalance. Pay them less charge them more- add interest. And gamble well into the Future- they willnever catch up.Who is the Forth? But the Mass communications industry. Control information, and control thoughts that can be shared- a mental isolation tank. So bombarded with mindless crap we are unable think for ourselves- introspection, reflection, deductive logic. butthis Horseman is new, weak a fledgling. It may still have the fortitude to ride away. Honestly instead of the Telecoms hoping this “Immunity” thing flies- they should stop talking an dstart Singing. they have all the gathered Evidence- well documented and have additional info that would seal the other three fate. we are well aware that the other Three have set their loyalties through out history. But the Free Press and Freedom of Speech are the sole realm of the Mass Communications - the other three rely on you. We are Begging You to turn away and Ride Home to Us. “Just Gimme Some Truth” J. Lennon

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By Douglas Chalmers, March 4, 2008 at 2:51 am Link to this comment

By kath cantarella, February 29 : “What we can do for Burma… the financial sanctions…”

One of the major problems is ASEAN wich suddenly seemed to be run by a bunch of nameless idiots once the issue of the military in Myanmar/Burma was raised at their last conference. The presidents and foreign ministers fell over themselves apologizing for the dictatorship they have fostered for decades just as US politicians fawn over AIPAC despite Israel’s continued human rights abuses and scheming manipulating of US domestic politics.

There is doubtless a two-way street of financing and corruption (oops, I mean favoritism) which involves the Singapore state octopus, Temasek Holdings, and associated corporations which have helped finance the sudden construction of an entire new capital city, Nay Pyi Daw, in Burma in the last couple of years. No doubt, that has been helped by the funny money which finds its ways into everybody’s pockets, tainted by the drugs trade and so forth….. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/milton-keynes-no-burmas-new-capital-442151.html and pics at http://svaradarajan.blogspot.com/2007/01/naypyitaw-photo-album.html

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By kath cantarella, February 29, 2008 at 4:34 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

According to Maung Maung :

Sanctions:

‘It’s only the United States that has done anything substantive. We have to thank the U.S. customs people and other authorities for following up on [presidential] executive orders. ‘

‘As small as they are, the financial sanctions are making a huge economic impact. The man I mentioned earlier—Tay Za—owned an airline called Air Bagan. It flew to Singapore and Thailand, and the military generals were very proud of it. But then the financial scrutiny hit Tay Za, and the banks in Singapore refused to handle his money. The French, too, stopped servicing his planes, and Tay Za eventually had to give up the enterprise…’

‘There has been a huge amount of moral support from American politicians, but the U.S. government hasn’t fully delivered….we have huge problems with logistics and implementation. ‘

and material support:

‘What it really comes down to is money: We need simple things like bicycles and satellite phones…. fuel is very expensive, so bicycles allow organizers to go around and speak with individuals in different areas.’

‘We also need money for video cameras, digital cameras and cell phones—these things are transforming our movement. It’s by bringing the eyes of the world back to the brutality of the regime that we can win out.’

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By Jeffrey Stingerstein, February 27, 2008 at 12:51 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Congrats!  That was the most ridiculous way to make this about the US doing something wrong that I have yet seen!  The issue of Israel and Palestine is far more complex than your lame post suggests.  And your post is way off topic.

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By kath cantarella, February 27, 2008 at 2:58 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

My head is now the shape of Burma, Dougie, from which the subject has veered to…er… the shape of my head.

And since i have participated in this process, mea culpa.

This thread should be about Burma.

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By Douglas Chalmers, February 17, 2008 at 9:27 pm Link to this comment

By Kath cantarella, February 16: “Mama tells me i was dropped on my head as a child…”

Only as a child? What “figure” is it shaped like now, uhh???

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By Kath cantarella, February 16, 2008 at 9:22 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mr Apricot, i’m afraid i always have a hard time figuring out what you are trying to say. (Mama tells me i was dropped on my head as a child, go figure.)

I’ve never been a fan of apricots but thank Christ (or South America?) for good coffee.

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By lilmamzer, February 7, 2008 at 8:55 am Link to this comment

Chalmers says, “The first things ARE loving kindness and doing to others as we would have them do to us.”

Hypocrisy never sounded more Progressive.

Chalmers, you never fail to deliver.

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By lilmamzer, February 7, 2008 at 8:39 am Link to this comment

frickin’ tin-foil-hat broken record

~ Y A W N ~

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By Douglas Chalmers, February 3, 2008 at 1:44 pm Link to this comment

#By kath cantarella, January 25: “You’re a peach, Doug…”

Uhh, I’m not a peach, I’m an apricot…....


#By Non Credo, February 3: “At least in Burma, the US is not actively, materially, fanatically, brazenly taking the side of the oppressors as they go about their greedy, murderous business…”

Well, they are actually, Non Credo. Its that we have downgraded the significance of scheming and manipulating as a motivating force in what happens. We know that the USA supports its oil + gas corporations wherever they operate. That means diplomatically and covertly (the CIA) as well as militarily.

Diplomacy is actually the first step in “the art of war” and it is often the most lethal. Blundering military action on the part of a superpower is the last resort but should not be waited for before assuming guilt or complicity. That is a game that the courts and the legalists love to play, though.

So, let us NOT forget Burma. The first things ARE loving kindness and doing to others as we would have them do to us. Of course, that is not the way of Machiavellian politics but it is the way to the end of the world and the end of civilization. We should be learning from the Buddhists there, not the generals…....

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By kath cantarella, January 25, 2008 at 10:56 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

thanks for replying.

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By Sang Ze, January 25, 2008 at 8:58 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“The world is a dangerous place to live in not because of those who do evil but because of those who watch and let it happen.” Albert Einstein

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By Douglas Chalmers, January 25, 2008 at 4:59 am Link to this comment

Re: Burma needs more coverage world-wide - #By kath cantarella, January 25: ”...can you clarify your comment please, since you have quoted me…”

Uhh, sorry, kath, I meant to include something about your comment which was interesting. The reason I was making that statement, though, was NOT about you.

The problem is that the military don’t often turn away from their commanders because they are what they are. It is (a) a kind of psychopathic state and (b) they love the thrill of killing, the chase, the fire-fights, whatever.

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By kath cantarella, January 25, 2008 at 1:33 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Hi Douglas, can you clarify your comment please, since you have quoted me?

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By Douglas Chalmers, January 23, 2008 at 7:51 pm Link to this comment

Burma needs more coverage world-wide - #By kath cantarella, January 22: ”...if only the military would turn away from it’s commanders….. The Burmese resistance is an example to the West…”

Everyone should be aware that Burma/Myanmar topics as well as Pakistan/Benazir Bhutto topics do attract low-level propaganda disinformation, misinformation and smear tactics from military officers from these countries posing as ordinary bloggers.

Thye operate in much the same way as GOP supporters do in covertly attacking Hillary Clinton blog topics through various kinds of deception. It happens on all blogs including in Asia. You get to know who is who after a while….. they also make use of the internet!

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By sy, January 23, 2008 at 6:09 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Readers of this article may find the following interesting:
“Pulling the Plug: A Technical Review of the Internet Shutdown in Burma”
http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/home/home?wid=10&func=viewSubmission&sid=2999

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By Burma Bloggers for Freedom, January 23, 2008 at 9:42 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Very thankful to truthdig and Sarah Stillman,

Thank you for presenting interview with Maung Maung. Actually, he did nothing for our people inside Burma and never involved in any activities for the recent movements. It is really really ashame for him he said what he did inside and saying about his people for the recent protest were totally incorrect. Maung Maung, he’s useless too.  What did he do along the Thai-Burma border, nothing, just sitting and talking shit. Sorry for that. We don’t want to see his interview again with incorrect infos. He neither represent people nor workers. God Bless You Maung Maung. We’re watching your move.

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By Douglas Chalmers, January 23, 2008 at 3:52 am Link to this comment

Quote Sarah Stillman: “American consumers, too, play a role in funding the regime, thanks to our taste for Burmese gemstones. In 2006 alone, the state-controlled Myanmar Gems Enterprise lapped up almost $300 million from the global ruby and jade trade, a revenue increase of 45 percent from the previous year….”

After making crawlingly supportive gestures towards Burma/Myanmar’s military rulers at a recent ASEAN meeting, Singaporean prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, ”...has called on France and other European countries to take a strategic view of their relationship with Asia. He said they need to look beyond economics and take a stake in Asia’s developments instead. Mr Lee was speaking to Singapore reporters after he met French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris on the first of his three-day visit…...

Mr Lee cited one example on how France can take the lead in having a greater stake in Asia. He said France was the first European country to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, or TAC, with ASEAN.
That treaty commits the ASEAN countries to co-exist peacefully and France endorsed that treaty last year at the ASEAN meeting in Cebu, Philippines. This shows France’s interest in Southeast Asia. Mr Lee said “because they did that, other European countries are now wanting also to participate and to sign the TAC”....”
- PM Lee calls on Europe to take strategic views over Asian ties - http://www.channelnewsasia.com/cna/cgi-bin/search/search_7days.pl?status=&search=myanmar&id=324067


Well, that would be nice because, despite the US Senate in December approved sanctions against Myanmar ‘s multi-million dollar gemstone industry, “Myanmar ‘s military government sold 600 lots of gems and jade at a recent auction, state media said Sunday, earning much-needed foreign income for the isolated military government as it faces stiff economic sanctions.


Despite calls from the United States and human-rights groups for a boycott of the sale after a bloody crackdown on protests last year, about 280 foreigners attended the sale, the New Light of Myanmar paper said…...

About 1,600 lots of gems and jade were up for sale at the auction which ended Saturday, and another sale of the precious stones is scheduled for March, the newspaper said. Myanmar , one of the world’s poorest countries, is the source of up to 90 per cent of the world’s rubies, and each auction rakes in more than 100 million US dollars, making it a key source of revenue for the military regime….” - Myanmar auctions gems, jade despite boycott calls - http://www.channelnewsasia.com/cna/cgi-bin/search/search_7days.pl?status=&search=myanmar&id=323717

NOTE that news items such as these do NOT necessarily appear on the Singapore or other ASEAN countries’ media websites but usually have to be searched for on site using “...Myanmar” as part of the search terms.

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By kath cantarella, January 22, 2008 at 10:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Unlike Iraq, Burma has a leader that would unite the country, if only the military would turn away from it’s commanders. 
The Burmese resistance is an example to the West.

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By srelf, January 22, 2008 at 12:58 pm Link to this comment

Like Michael Moore asked of CNN when he wrangled with Wolf Blitzer over their distortion of the healthcare debate, “Who’s keeping CNN honest?”
Anderson Cooper should be doing constant updates on Burma and I still cringe when I hear him repeat that phrase! But he probably has no power to stay on a story like Burma that requires long-term attention. It’s the nature of our screwed-up news/entertainment business, supported by a populace that hasn’t been taught by the preceding generation what citizenship means.

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