Page last updated at 10:44 GMT, Tuesday, 9 October 2007 11:44 UK

What Burma wants from the world

The BBC News website's Kate McGeown has just returned from visiting Burma. Here she assesses what the Burmese people want from the international community.

Child beggars in Rangoon, 04/10
Signs of poverty are everywhere on the streets of Rangoon

In the wake of the military crackdown on unarmed monks in Burma, the world's leaders are once again discussing how to deal with the country's repressive regime.

After meeting the senior generals in their new capital, Naypyidaw, UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari warned that there could be "serious international repercussions" as a result of the recent bloodshed.

The US has already toughened its sanctions against Burma, and the EU is set to follow suit.

But far away from the world's debating chambers and boardrooms where their future is being discussed, the people of Burma have slightly different priorities.

"We would like to have democracy, but the most important thing for us is to have peace, and enough food on our plates," one woman said.

Sanction drawbacks

Burma is a country that is desperately poor. According to recent international estimates, 32% of the population live below the poverty line and, excluding a small rich elite, the rest are only just above it.

The international community did nothing to stop a three-day killing spree... That was when I realised we were on our own
Rangoon resident

I saw signs of poverty everywhere in Rangoon - children with distended stomachs, people scavenging through rubbish and families buying coal to cook on open fires, owing to the intermittent and expensive electricity supply.

Outside the major cities, the situation is far worse.

Foreigners are rarely allowed into the northern and eastern states, but reports from refugees who have left these areas suggest conditions are on a par with the worst parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Unsurprisingly, the main thing most Burmese people want is an improvement in their standard of living.

As a result, many Burmese are sceptical of sanctions, saying they have already made the country poor and will only make the situation worse if they are tightened further.

"Sanctions don't work - they're not the solution," one elderly man said to me in a Rangoon teashop, as we discussed Burma's future.

Walking around the city, watching the Japanese and Chinese cars go by, and looking at the plethora of Chinese and Indian goods on sale, it is easy to see how he has drawn this conclusion.

The US and EU sanctions that are already in place have undoubtedly affected Burma's overall economy, but they do not seem to have done much harm to the rich military generals, who are busy making deals with the rest of Asia.

Let down?

While they might not favour sanctions, the people of Burma definitely want the international community's help in other ways.

Senior General Than Shwe
Burma's reclusive leaders enjoy opulent lifestyles

Many of those who telephoned the UN during the crackdown asked why no-one was sending a peacekeeping force.

I was faced with a similar question when I was in Burma last year. "Why have the US and the UK invaded Iraq, and not done the same here?" one man asked me at the time.

After the events of recent weeks, some Burmese people feel let down by the outside world.

"The international community did nothing to stop a three-day killing spree," one woman said. "That was when I realised we were on our own."

Small step forward

Of course, there are many people around the world who want to stand by the Burmese people to prove they are not alone.

Millions have attended marches to protest against the military crackdown and signed petitions to pressurise international leaders for change.

The language used to condemn the Burmese military leaders has become far more accusatory in the aftermath of the crackdown, with US President George W Bush calling the junta a "brutal regime... that has ruled Burma for too long".

After days without any response, it appears that all this pressure is finally having some effect on Burma's leaders.

Late last week, Senior General Than Shwe offered to meet pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi - who has been under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years - as long as she agrees to certain conditions, such as ending her call for sanctions.

He has even appointed a minister to liaise with her about the details.

It is the first time he has agreed to meet Ms Suu Kyi, and considering he is reported to hate her so much he does not even allow people to mention her name, it is a welcome step forward.

But Burmese people I spoke to are not very optimistic that this meeting will answer their problems.

Even if Ms Suu Kyi agrees to the conditions set by the military, both sides have had such contrasting views for so long, it is difficult to see how they can find common ground.

And to the people inside Burma, it appears the government has no intention of instigating change at all.

In fact the generals seem to be trying to convince people they are still firmly in control and that everything is back to normal - playing down the scale of the protests and filling state media with images of huge pro-government rallies around the country.

But the people have shown by their protests that they want change.

Their demonstrations might have been quashed, but their plight has caught the attention of the international community and become a cry for help.

The pressure is now on world leaders to put their strong words of condemnation into action, and answer that call.


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