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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Nov 21, 2007
UPFRONT
In Singapore, Myanmar activists keep within the law
By Zakir Hussain & Tracy Sua

ABOUT 40 Myanmar nationals were having coffee at the Starbucks cafe at Orchard Parade Hotel, or standing around nearby.
As the clock struck 7pm yesterday, they gathered silently and organised themselves in rows of three.

Dressed in red T-shirts, some of the men and women held up a banner that said: 'Listen to Burma's desires, don't follow junta's order.'

Others held up posters with messages targeting Myanmar's rulers, in town for this week's Asean Summit where a landmark Charter was inked.

'Signing Charter with generals makes Asean laughing stock,' said one. 'Asean has power to make a difference,' read another.

About 20 minutes later, a policeman approached one of them and asked to know the purpose of their gathering.

'We are going to go now,' the reply came.

And just as quickly as they had formed, they dispersed, while some of the 20 officers who had arrived took down their particulars.

Late last night, police said they would hold an investigation into possible offences committed by the protesters.

Yesterday's events were a sharp break from the previous restraint displayed by Myanmar activists, which even drew guarded praise from the police last month.

After a Myanmar protest by opposition politician Chee Soon Juan outside the Istana last month, the police issued a statement saying that 'in contrast to Chee's acts of civil disobedience, Singaporeans and Myanmar nationals in Singapore have organised themselves to express their sentiments and concern for the Myanmar situation in a lawful manner'.

Even the Myanmar demonstrators yesterday previously said they did not wish to break the law.

Business student Myo Myint Maung, 22, said: 'The Burmese community in Singapore has always paid utmost respect to the law of Singapore and even the mandate of Asean.

'Right now we feel that Asean, including the Singapore Government, is ignoring the desire and wishes of the Burmese people. That's why we come here to show our disappointment and discontent about it.'

The source of their dismay? Asean leaders' agreeing to respect Myanmar's wishes to deal with the United Nations directly itself, a decision that came late on Monday night.

Activists in the 30,000-strong Myanmar community here had been hopeful that Asean leaders would take a tough stand against the generals.

Now that UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari's planned briefing to Asean leaders had been cancelled at Yangon's request, demonstrators said they would like to meet the envoy.

The 30,000-strong Myanmar community here had been hardly noticed before September's clampdown on demonstrators by Myanmar's military.

At least once a fortnight since then, hundreds have gathered for updates on conditions back home and to discuss how they could help hasten the process of change in their homeland, which has been under tight military rule for 45 years.

The driving force behind these gatherings is a new group that was outraged by the brutal repression of monks and civilians protesting against military rule and rising prices.

The Overseas Burmese Patriots is a loose band led by about 20 students, professionals and workers here, some of whom demonstrated yesterday as well.

Their mission is best described in their slogan: 'We pursue peace, justice and democracy for Burma'.

It was emblazoned on the back of the signature red T-shirts worn yesterday and at a forum attended by some 600 Myanmar nationals on Saturday.

They adopted red to show solidarity with the victims of the clampdown at home: At least 10 had died and hundreds detained.

The junta's repressive measures lie at the heart of a mass petition that emerged from previous meetings.

Signed by 3,626 Myanmar nationals, it was addressed to the United Nations Security Council and called for 'effective intervention' to foster national reconciliation and political reform.

The petition was handed to Tampines GRC MP Irene Ng, who will forward it to the UN through the Foreign Ministry.

'We want to voice our feelings and push for change but through lawful means,' said a 22-year-old engineering undergraduate who wanted to be known only as Soe, for fear that his family back home may suffer reprisals for his protests.

Beyond dialogues, the activists have also been holding talks at tertiary institutions and prayers for peace at the Burmese Buddhist Temple off Balestier Road.

But they are not optimistic that change will come soon.

Proof is in the runaround the Myanmar generals gave UN envoy Gambari on his visits to Myanmar, and the cancellation of his briefing here.

Asean, which Myanmar joined in 1997, follows a policy of non-intervention in its members' internal affairs.

Despite these obstacles, the activists say they will not slow down efforts to lobby regional leaders to pressure the generals.

A 30-year-old professional, who wanted to be known only as Zeyar, felt the Summit had achieved some good.

'At least the generals have signed the Charter, which obliges them to protect human rights. Whether they will do so is another thing,' he said.

But others like John Moe, 34, who works in an engineering firm and who demonstrated yesterday, felt enough was enough.

'We would like Asean to really listen to the Burmese people and not to listen to the junta... We want Asean to help us get freedom.'

zakirh@sph.com.sg

tracysua@sph.com.sg

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