It might come as cold comfort, but if it had not been for Burma's membership of Asean (Association of South- east Asian Nations) and five years of what the organisation calls "constructive engagement", the bloodshed in last month's monk-led protests could have been a lot worse.
Self-serving or not, Asean secretary-general Ong Keng Yong's assertion may hold some water. During the 1988 uprising in Burma, troops killed at least 3,000 protesters. This time the body count is anywhere between 13 and 130, with indications that, for all its brutality, Burma's military regime did hold back somewhat.
"We believe they did act with a certain restraint," Ong told The Straits Times. "They see a certain usefulness in Asean. They don't want to just walk away from the table. The situation could be a lot worse. They could be outside the membership and not give a damn about the rest of South-east Asia."
The real test, however, will come at the Nov 19-21 Asean summit in Singapore, when its leaders will have to deal with the perfect diplomatic storm - the crisis in Burma itself and a new charter giving the organisation the authority to expel a member for a breach of principles.
It's a highly informative article. Nevertheless, I think journalists have no business declaring the body count in Burma "is anywhere between 13 and 130" when the true figure could well be many times higher than 130.
I would refer journalists and Asean officials to this post. It summarizes -- and sources -- the big unknowns: reports of secret cremations, the massacre of monks, and the question as to whether Burma's hospitals had been ordered not to treat the wounded. Frankly, there are too many such reports from too many sources for anyone outside the Burmese junta to say they know how many died with such specificity. It's simply not possible to know the number of dead at this time. So let's stop pretending that any of the numbers we have are meaningful.
What we don't know about the extent of the crackdown in Burma far exceeds the extent of knowledge of the crackdown. There is still no working Internet in Burma! How many international news agencies even have correspondents in Rangoon?
The Asean leader's assertion of confidence in the regime and in the moderating impact of Burma's Asean membership is based on highly spurious figures that the world press has taken far too seriously. Journalists and politicians should not assume published figures of dead or missing Burmese present a valid reflection of the full scope of the terrible reality of what has happened and is presently occurring in Burma.
Because they do not.