Region Protests Burma Crackdown

Public sympathy for fleeing Burmese minorities forces Asian leaders to voice concern

FEARING Islamic sentiment at home, once-indifferent governments in Southeast Asia are beginning to speak out against Burma's attacks on its Muslim minority.

In a departure from past policy, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore voiced worries last week over the forced flight of more than 150,000 Rohingya Muslims from Burma (now called Myanmar) into neighboring Bangladesh.

Their protests come amid growing international outcry over the plight of the Burmese Muslims. This week, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Khaleda Zia visits Washington to seek help from the United States and the United Nations in resolving the problem.

The Organization of Islamic Conference, along with Pakistan, Iran, and other Middle Eastern countries, has condemned the junta in Rangoon (now called Yangon), for persecuting its Muslim community.

The governments of Malaysia and Indonesia, which are predominantly Muslim countries, are under pressure domestically to back economic sanctions against Burma; they have rejected that move thus far.

Malaysia has urged its noncommunist neighbors to take a united stand against Rangoon's treatment of Muslims, but Thailand, which holds large timber and fishing concessions in Burma, is opposed.

Southeast Asia's shifting policy contrasts with the region's original stance when the Rangoon regime quashed a pro-democracy movement in 1988. Burma's neighbors have stayed aloof from what they say are internal problems and pursued a policy of "constructive engagement."

Some have pursued trade and lucrative concessions in natural resources that have helped the junta stay in power, diplomats and political observers say.

Yet the Rohingyas' exodus "tends to have an adverse effect on peace and stability in Southeast Asia," Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas says.

Rohingya Muslims who have fled the Burmese Army campaign tell of chaos, killing, rape, and looting.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has called for $30 million in aid to cope with the flood of people, estimated by the UN to be 5,000 to 7,000 daily. More than 100,000 Burmese refugees are in 11 camps in Bangladesh while tens of thousands more live on the roads and await shelter.

The refugees fled their homes under similar circumstances in 1974 and 1978 and were repatriated with UN assistance. But Rangoon says the Rohingyas, who have lived in the western province of Arakan for generations, are not Burmese nationals and will not be allowed to return.

At the same time, Rangoon is moving to quash its longest running insurgency mounted by Karen tribesmen, who have sought autonomy for more than four decades.

On Sunday, Karen officials said their fighters had been forced to withdraw from strategic Sleeping Dog Mountain, a position that could be used to capture Karen headquarters at Manerplaw six miles away.

Regime troops are well-positioned to shell the border outpost, but in order to launch a full attack on the Karens, the Burmese must cross the Thai border.

The Burmese local commander reportedly warned Thai border troops this weekend to back away from the Karen border camp. When the Thais refused, an artillery duel ensued. Six Burmese troops were reported killed and the Thais have called for reinforcements.

The Karens have been under pressure since the government launched a fierce offensive in late December. The Burmese junta reportedly has ordered the Army to capture Manerplaw by March 27, which is Burma's Armed Forces Day, diplomats say.

Manerplaw, which Rangoon has been trying to capture for 20 years, would be a valuable prize for the regime. The outpost on the border with Thailand is also the seat of a government-in-exile established last year by dissident politicians from the National League for Democracy.

The political coalition swept an election in May 1990, although the junta has refused to turn over power. Its leader, Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has been under house arrest in Rangoon for almost three years.

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