Burma protests continue

Photo by Ralf-André Lettau

Driven by sudden five-fold fuel and commodity prices and the continuing deterioration of the country’s educational system, protests in Burma appear to be spreading outside of Rangoon to other cities and taking on an increasingly political hue despite heavy-handed crackdowns by the country’s military and allied gangs of thugs.

The protests have only a distant chance of success, but despite the detention of dozens of pro-democracy supporters, they appear to be growing in the face of fears that the soldiers could start shooting at any time. Leaders from the 1988 student protest movement, many of them jailed for more than a decade, are back on the streets along with protest leaders from even earlier periods.

Military leaders have called on the clergy in Buddhist temples to quell the protests. Nonetheless, scores of Buddhist monks joined a protest in the port city of Sittwe Tuesday as bystanders clapped from roadsides and apartments. In Akyab, the capital of the southeastern state of Arakan, 200 monks took to the street to protest the fuel increases. The presence of the monks, the country’s only real moral authority given the corrupt and brutal government, may be especially disturbing to the ruling junta in the devoutly Buddhist country.

So far, 10 days of arrests have failed to stop the protests over price increases that have left many without even the money to get to work. In at least three provincial towns, where government security isn’t as tight, hundreds of people have marched in the streets, so far only to official warnings.

It remains to be seen how far the demonstrations will go. In 1988 protests against then-military dictator General Ne Win built to a point where Rangoon and much of the country was completely outside government control. It will take more than a few hundred scattered protesters to create that kind of momentum, especially when the memories of the wholesale slaughter of protesters in September 1988 by the current junta remain fresh. But the military, which has been resupplied with modern weapons as a result of its energy revenues, particularly from China and India, is likely more powerful than ever. Although though more than 100 people have been arrested so far, protesters have continued to defy the threat of torture and prison.

The question now, analysts say, is whether other parts of society will also take to the streets of the impoverished country.

"The problem is the activists alone cannot continue this. They will be arrested and arrested until they disappear," Thailand's former ambassador to Burma, Asda Jayanama, told Agence France Press.

In 1988, when the military retook the streets of Rangoon on September 18, hundreds, if not thousands, died, according to activists, diplomats and journalists. Asia Sentinel Executive Editor A. Lin Neumann was one of the few journalists to witness the carnage of September 1988 first hand: “They put machine gun emplacements on pedestrian flyovers and raked the streets with gun fire. Soldiers trapped students in a square by the US Embassy and killed people in the cross fire. The gunfire went on for days and the hospitals ran out of morphine and medicine. We later saw trucks filled with bodies leaving the city. It was impossible to know how many died.”

Student leaders were imprisoned, with hundreds more escaping into the jungle, where their influence increasingly waned with the passing years. The shootings instilled a visceral aversion to protest.

It is questionable if the popular mood is changing. Burma analyst Win Min told AFP that activists believe they have popular support, but that he was unsure if the public was ready to risk their lives by joining the protests.

In Rangoon Tuesday, about 50 activists gathered near a bus stop close to the former campus of Yangon University on the north side of the country’s main city, but plainclothes police and pro-junta goons broke up the group after only 10 minutes, witnesses said. Su Su Nway, an activist who was awarded the John Humphrey Freedom Award by the Canada-based group Rights and Democracy after having been arrested in 2005 and 2007, was said to have narrowly escaped a violent pro-junta mob that broke up the demonstration she was attending at Hledan Market in Rangoon’s Kamaryut Township. She was reportedly dragged by the mob but escaped.

“It was terrible,” she told reporters. “I shouted at them that we were peacefully demanding the prices of commodities be reduced for people, including soldiers and police.”

As an example of the changing atmosphere, the long-dormant All Burma Federation of Student Unions, many of whose members were either imprisoned or driven out of Burma, announced it would resume its struggle against the country’s military government.

“Today we reestablish the ABFSU to take on the shifting roles of former students in a new generation to fight for freedom, justice and the building of a democratic country,” a spokesperson for the group, who gave his name as Kyaw Ko Ko, told the Burmese exile magazine The Irrawaddy on Tuesday. The student union’s activities go back decades, earning admiration for its role in opposing British colonial rule, and the rise of Burma’s military dictators.

Kyaw Ko Ko said the group is now organizing among university and high school students in Rangoon and other major cities. In addition, the pro-democracy 88 Generation Students Group, whose members led the 1988 uprising, have also become active.

Although Burma’s captive media reported that only 56 people have been arrested during the protests, Thailand-based political dissidents on Monday said it was at least 100. Min Ko Naing, considered Myanmar’s most prominent pro-democracy advocate after detained opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, was arrested on August 19.

“In the last week, the 88 Generation Students group leaders and other opposition political parties have held protests,” said Kyaw Ko Ko, who currently studies economics at a university in Rangoon. “It is important that we students and the general public join them to stand up for the people of Burma.”

According to Irrawaddy, the government said only that authorities were interrogating those taken into custody. Most of those arrested have already spent more than a decade in prison.