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ROBERT TEMPLAR INTERVIEW - Wednesday 26th September, 2007

GEORGE NEGUS: Robert, thank you for your time. If I could begin by getting your reaction to a comment by the British Ambassador, Mark Canning, who is on the spot in Burma. He said they are in uncharted territory in Burma at the moment. He said that he thinks that an overreaction, which is possible, he says highly possible, by the government, by the junta, would be tantamount to a disaster. How do you assess the situation at the moment as a long-time Burma watcher?

ROBERT TEMPLER, INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP: I would agree with that, certainly this is the most unstable situation we have seen since the early 1990s. It is certainly at risk of blowing up into something very violent. This is a government that has over-reacted to these sorts of things in the past, has a long history of using violence against peaceful demonstrations. In 1988 the Burmese military just fired into crowds, and killed possibly 3,000 people, maybe even more than that. It arrested large numbers of people, forced even more than that to flee the country. This is a government that has a history of deploying the most brutal tactics possible when faced with demonstrations like these.

GEORGE NEGUS: So it sounds like you're fearing for the worst, like a lot of other people.

ROBERT TEMPLER: Yes, I think so. I think it's driven by the extraordinary economic failure of the country. This is really a wealthy country. It has gas, it has gemstones, forestry products, a whole array of natural wealth. This has really been plundered by this military. What you see is a level of poverty that is really extraordinary. It is similar levels to sub-Saharan Africa in some parts of the country. I think the middle class in Rangoon have been particularly squeezed recently by rises in fuel costs, rises in food costs, very extreme inflation. All of these pressures have built up. People are simply fed up of the level of misrule that they have suffered there.

GEORGE NEGUS: Robert, by way of background, explain to those of us who may not be as clear as you are, the politics of the junta. They have been described as eccentric Socialists, latter-day Communists. How would you describe the politics of this strange group of people that have held sway over that country with the world sitting on its hands for 45 years.

ROBERT TEMPLER: Well they defy any easy description like Socialist, Communist, anything like that. It is really a group of military officers who have been extremely isolated from the world, who see their role as the preservation of this country from a variety of forces, both within and outside, that threaten it. There is a complex mix here of feudalism, military hierarchy, cultural factors, greed because these are people who have managed to amass significant wealth while being in power and an extreme xenophobia and nationalism. It is a country that has some very deep scars from its colonial rule. And the period of independence was extremely difficult, disrupted by very serious arrays of conflict. It is a complex mixture.

GEORGE NEGUS: The monks, there is an organisation called the Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks. They have stated that they will continue to protest until they have wiped the military dictatorship from the land of Burma. Surely that is going to be seen by the junta as a declaration of war, nothing less.

ROBERT TEMPLER: I think that is a terrifying threat because the monks are really the only other power base in this country in any way. The military government relies to a certain degree for its legitimacy on its relationship with monks, well, it certainly did so. Every night on the TV news there was literally half an hour every evening of shots of soldiers giving gifts to monks, making merit with senior Buddhist leaders. And now the Buddhist leadership has turned on the military, and I think that's an extraordinary development. And it's an extraordinary threat to the military, which is why, I think, a great many people are very fearful of some sort of violent crackdown.

GEORGE NEGUS: Robert it would appear to those of us, looking in from the outside, concern as everybody is, that Burma has been an accident waiting to happen for four decades.

ROBERT TEMPLER: Well the sad reality is that Burma has never mattered enough to the larger powers either in the region or elsewhere. And that has meant there has been a long period of drift. This of course has been exacerbated by the regime itself which has been extremely isolated, very difficult to influence. I think even the Chinese, the Indians, the ASEAN members who try to engage with them find them extremely difficult to deal with and to talk to. It's a country where the government has changed its mind and changed directions very suddenly, with no warning. It's an extremely difficult problem to tackle. But it has been horribly mismanaged over a long period.