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The Whole World Was Watching
Posted on Jan 22, 2008
Stillman: The U.N. has reported on “grave child rights violations,” including the forced recruiting of children into the army. Apparently there’s pressure to accelerate army recruitment rates, and brokers are said to be paid $30 and a bag of rice for each child soldier recruited. The U.N. also found that some children who desert from the Burmese military are given prison terms of up to five years. What is the state of the military. ... Is the regime so desperate that it has to recruit kids?
Maung Maung: Yes, the regime is having serious problems recruiting. The military used to be a respected entity, but this is no longer true. Although the top generals are filthy rich, many of their soldiers face great economic hardships. They don’t even have basic footwear—many of them go around in sandals or barefoot. It’s just not impressive! When a soldier doesn’t have any shoes, it not only makes it hard to fight, but it also shakes his faith in his superiors.
We have a database of how many individuals are deserting the military, and it shows that more and more men at the senior levels of the military are defecting. This is due mostly to the hardships that their families face. It’s a sad fact, but many of the soldiers’ wives and daughters have become prostitutes to cope with the poverty. Reasons like this explain why the military is having a hard time recruiting.
And so what have they done? The regime is forcibly taking children, especially high school kids hanging out at the theater or wherever. The army truck pulls up and the kids are forced into the back of the truck and taken to the police station, where they are left to sleep overnight. The next morning, the sergeant shows up and tells them that they’ve committed a crime and that the only way to avoid jail is to join the military.
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Maung Maung: Well, I wouldn’t say we’re necessarily prominent. But the real key is that the trade unionists are the only unit of activists inside Burma who have unique experience with international organizations. We know exactly how to link up with trade union movements around the world to get basic training materials, and also to get references on the techniques used by other countries in other struggles in history.
We also have people who are well trained in organizing skills, unlike most of the movement’s student activists. I can ask any union person to come and offer training to our activists for two weeks, and they’ll come—we get tremendous help from the ILO [International Labor Organization], the ITUC [International Trade Union Confederation,] the SEIU [Service Employees International Union] and other groups. The ILO even has an office in Rangoon, working on international monitoring issues and providing protection for us. This isn’t true with the students or political organizations, who have a big handicap on the international front. They often lack basic organizing skills.
Stillman: You mention learning from other countries. When the street demonstrations were going on, Bishop Tutu of South Africa strongly backed the monks and other protesters, saying, “It is so like the rolling mass actions that eventually toppled apartheid.” Certainly there are many differences, but do you see parallels from the success of the anti-apartheid movement?
Maung Maung: Well, different countries, different struggles. I’d say that the overall similarity is that the international effort must be coordinated. We need a wide array of governments to support the United Nation’s initiatives in a coordinated way. The U.S. is doing it, and the UK is, too. France is starting to wake up, and Italy.
But we’re been having big problems with the Germans, who’ve been a pain in the neck. They want to have their own approach. We need unity. Most countries are slowly moving towards working together, with the U.N. at the helm. Even China is starting to think like that. Coordination, like in South Africa, is the most important thing.
Stillman: What do you think is the most constructive role that American advocates can play in the pro-democracy struggle? What forms of action or protest would be most helpful?
Maung Maung: There has been a huge amount of moral support from American politicians, but the U.S. government hasn’t fully delivered. Sure, Congress has done a lot, and there is even support from Laura Bush, but we have huge problems with logistics and implementation.
What it really comes down to is money: We need simple things like bicycles and satellite phones. People may laugh, but the movement really needs bicycles. In Burma, 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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