Increasingly serious situation could turn into another Iraq or Yugoslavia.
Growing unrest and mass street demonstrations across Myanmar could herald an extremely dangerous period for the nation formerly known as Burma.
Military-ruled Myanmar is extremely difficult to enter and bans foreign journalists. This writer has managed to get into Myanmar three times. On the last, I was told the secret police were actually conducting bed checks in people's homes in the capital to ensure no trouble-makers from the rebellious northern states were in town.
On a second visit, I eluded the secret police and got to see the nation's Nobel prize-winning democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi in her home in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, where she has been under house arrest for 17 years.
The crisis in Myanmar seems a simple morality drama. The saintly Suu Kyi is held like a bird in a cage by a junta of brutal, wicked generals, who until recently called themselves the State Law and Order Council, or SLORC. In 1988, the junta's soldiers crushed student demonstrations, killing 3,000. After Suu Kyi's party won a landslide victory in 1990 elections, the generals annulled the vote and declared martial law.
This week President George W. Bush and other western nations called for even tighter sanctions against Myanmar's junta and urged its replacement with democratic government.
Myanmar, in-deed, is a nasty police state. Its generals have plundered resources and kept this magnificent nation in direst poverty. Myanmar is often called a "jewel" and "unspoiled Asia of 1940s." True enough. But that's because the junta and its predecessor, mad dictator, Gen. Ne Win, turned Burma into a weird, hermit kingdom.
But extreme caution is advised in dealing with Myanmar. If things go wrong there, it could turn into an Asian version of Iraq, Yugoslavia or Afghanistan.
Myanmar has been at war for 50 years with 17 ethnic rebel groups seeking secession from the former 14-state Union of Burma created by Imperial Britain, godfather of many of the world's worst current problems.
Burmans, of Tibetan origin, form 68% of the population of 57 million. But there are other important, well-defined, independence-minded ethnic groups: Shan, the largely Christian Karen, Kachin, Chin, Mon, Wa, Rakhine, Anglo-Burmese, and Chinese.
The largest, Shan, with its Shan State Army, are ethnically close to neighbouring Thailand, and in cahoots with the Thai military. Each major ethnic group has its own army and finances itself through smuggling timber, jewels, arms, and drugs.
The military juntas in Rangoon, and their 500,000-member armed forces, known as Tatmadaw, battled these secessionists for decades until the current junta managed to establish uneasy ceasefires with the major rebel groups.
If the junta were to be replaced by a democratic civilian government led by the gentle Suu Kyi, and military repression ended, it is highly likely Myanmar's ethnic rebellions would quickly re-ignite. The only force holding Myanmar together is the military and secret police.
Shan, Karen, Kachin, and Mon still demand their own independent nations. Myanmar's powerful neighbours -- India, China and Thailand -- have their eye on this potentially resource-rich nation.
China exercises strong influence over Myanmar and is building a naval base near Rangoon to give direct access for the first time to the Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean.
India sees rival China threatening its rebellion-plagued eastern hill states along the Burmese border, and is increasingly alarmed by Chinese naval ambitions in the Indian Ocean.
A new democratic government in Yangon-Rangoon that is not tough enough to deal with secessionist regions around its troubled periphery could see Burma fall into internal turmoil and also invite intervention by covetous neighbours.
At worst, India and China could even clash head-on over control of strategic Burma, a threat identified in my book on Asian geopolitics and Indian-Chinese rivalry, War at the Top of the World.
So the West should tread with great caution in Myanmar. The West and Asia must exercise great care they do not exchange military dictatorship for ethnic strife and regional conflict. (Eric Margolis/Edmunton Sun)