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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 15, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 41

A Siege - of Sorts
Behind the drama at Myanmar's embassy

Thailand is home to thousands of Myanmar exiles who have fled the military regime back home. Among diplomats at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok are several with a military background, including ambassador Hla Maung. Security at the mission is notoriously lax and the Myanmar side has long complained to the Thais in vain. The single - often dozing - Thai policeman inside the unlocked main gate would wave visitors through without even a cursory check, despite the embassy being a high-risk one and the fact that most disaffected Myanmar exiles live in border camps where weapons are easily available. Putting these factors together, it is surprising that the armed takeover of the embassy on Oct. 1 did not occur earlier.

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When it did happen, it was with evident ease. Five masked youths brandishing automatic rifles and grenades stormed a side-entrance and occupied the compound within minutes, taking diplomats and visa applicants as hostages. What followed was a wild and wacky 24-hour siege that fortuitously ended without bloodshed. As both terrorists and hostages made and received phone calls from outside, the Thai authorities belatedly scrambled into action. An adjacent office building was taken over as a command center and the street outside was shut to normal traffic - though journalists and curious onlookers, including tourists, had no difficulty getting close to the scene.

Conflicting reports filtered out about the number of terrorists and their demands. No one seemed sure what was going on. But the Thais continued with their haphazard and laidback negotiation. Surprisingly, it worked. A day later, the terrorists exchanged their hostages for Thai Deputy Foreign Minister Sukhumbhand Paribatra and another official and then were flown by helicopter to the Thai-Myanmar border where they were released to melt into the jungle - presumably to celebrate a successful mission. But there was plenty of criticism. Says political scientist Chayachoke Chulasiriwongs of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University: "The government has been letting these people run around. How could you let somebody take machine guns and grenades into the center of Bangkok? Really incredible. Ridiculous."

Myanmar's junta agrees. Says Brig.-Gen. Zaw Tun, deputy national planning minister in Yangon: "They got away so easily. If that had happened in Myanmar, they would have been punished." Still, it was evident the gunmen were exasperated rebel students rather than clinical killers. That said, there were reports - since denied by Thai officials quoted locally - that the group's leader was involved in hijacking a Myanmar civilian aircraft 10 years ago. Says Soe Aung of the Bangkok-based All Burma Students' Democratic Front: "These actions are the indications of the people's desperation; they can't be tolerant any more."

Officially, all sides publicly condemned the assault, including Western governments, mainstream Myanmar exile groups and even the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Sukhumbhand, a former academic who has been having a torrid time as a first-term MP, emerged an unlikely hero. Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai and Interior Minister Sanan Kachornprasart were also praised for their hands-on role in bringing a peaceful end to the incident, though Sanan blotted his copybook by saying: "We don't consider them to be terrorists. They are student activists who fight for democracy."

A group of six or seven hostages felt the same way. Rather than praise the Thais who had faciliated their release, they burst into wildly demonstrative scenes of support for their former captors. They cheered, donned revolutionary headbands and waved NLD and pro-democracy flags. This performance and filmed scenes of some of them hugging their abductors lent credence to allegations made by Yangon that collusion had occurred. But Arthur Shwe of the National Council of the Union of Burma dismisses this. Says he: "The hostages had nothing to do with it."

Yes or no, security at the embassy - and at other foreign missions in Bangkok - is likely to be upgraded. And PM Chuan said the situation regarding Myanmar exiles living in Thailand may need to be reviewed. Says Chayachoke: "By us treating the students very leniently, it looks to the Myanmar government that we are giving them support." But few expect draconian action. As for relations between Bangkok and Yangon, bilateral ties had been improving after the regime's leaders visited Bangkok in March and then Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan went to Yangon and Mandalay where he praised his counterpart Win Aung for teaching him "a lot about history." He notably did not call on Suu Kyi. Now there could be a chill. Says Zaw Tun: "We are a little bit angry."

Sanan's comment will not help. Even the exiles do not share this view. Says Shwe: "It is natural they be branded terrorists. Their motive was good but [not] their action." There is a fear of repeat acts and even a sense that perhaps the five gunmen have shown the democracy activists the way of the future. The NLD's non-violent credo has got it nowhere, and it may be hard for the movement to convince young hotheads not to heed a call to arms.

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