Burma’s Democracy Challenge Flickers Awake Again

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The small but persistent protests that have shaken Burma since late August may not be over after all, despite the arrests of key activists and violence by thugs against protesters in Rangoon and other cities over the last two weeks. Hundreds of Buddhist monks in the town of Pakokku, some 600 km from Rangoon, took government officials hostage Thursday and burned four of their cars.

It remains to be seen if the monks’ rebellion will spread to other areas. The junta retains an iron grip on the country and has built a formidable security apparatus to keep the country’s 47 million people firmly under their thumb, but the involvement of the monks is a wild card in an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation

“It is very significant that monks have begun to get involved in the protest ‑ remember they all played quite an important role in the 1988 uprising together with students,” said an observer by email from Chiang Mai in Thailand, where many exiled Burmese remain. “The Burmese people and activists were counting on them when small-scale protests broke out in Rangoon in the last two weeks. I think if the regime continues to mishandle these protests, it will easily spread to many major cities where a large number of monks are studying and living, such as Mandalay and Rangoon.”

According to news services, the officials were trapped in a monastery after they had attempted to apologize for firing shots over the heads of protesting monks on August 29 and ask the abbot to stop his charges from taking part in protests. A crowd of as many as 1,000 people gathered after the cars were burned.

There was no sign of the military or police at the latest demonstration, as by and large there have not been to this point. Until recently, soldiers and riot police have not been seen in public ‑ only thugs and hardcore members of the regime’s mass association, the Union Solidarity Development Association together with government security officials who are maintaining “order.” The gangs have followed and intimidated demonstrators, often beating them and hurling them into waiting trucks. Women are also being beaten, prompting onlookers to intervene and risk arrest themselves.

It is not known how many people have been arrested in the crackdown on the protests, which began when the junta introduced a five-fold increase in fuel prices that left many Burmese so broke that they couldn’t get to work. Word soon spread that the price increases were in advance of a plan to privatize the fuel system.

Activists arrested and jailed include prominent former student leaders such as Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi. Four women activists, including labor rights leader Su Su Nway and HIV-Aids activist Phyu Phyu Thin, remain in hiding. About 100 are thought to have been detained.

The military put down a 1988 uprising with such brutality that protesters in Rangoon and other cities have long been scattered into silence. Perhaps as many as 3,000 protesters were shot down in Rangoon in 1988. Hundreds of leaders were jailed and hundreds more fled into the jungles to attempt largely ineffective insurrections that ultimately fizzled out.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy, which overwhelmingly won a 1990 election the military refused to recognize, has been held under house arrest since 2003 when she and her convoy were attacked by junta-backed mobs in central Burma as she attempted to make contact with her supporters.

In the current standoff, Reuters reported that “Intervening against monks in Pakokku is particularly risky for the junta as the town is only 80 miles from the second city of Mandalay, the religious heart of a devoutly Buddhist nation and home to 300,000 monks. Historically, monasteries have played a major role in political uprisings, both in 1988 and in revolts against Britain, which had colonized the country.

A resident of Mandalay described the atmosphere to Reuters as very tense.

Burma’s latest episode of protest repression began three weeks ago with peaceful marches shortly after Min Ko Naing, considered the second-most prominent opposition figure after Suu Ky, and other activists returned from a religious ceremony at the home of late veteran politician Col Kyi Maung, marking the third anniversary of his death. The “return home” march was spontaneous and caught the attention of curious onlookers, including security officials. In photos taken of the march, the small band of white-shirted marchers looked frightened and isolated, but they kept going. After the march, Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi spoke to the Washington-based radio station Radio Free Asia.

The two spoke out strongly but made no call for action to topple the regime. At one point in the interview, Ko Ko Gyi pointed out that the army was enjoying double rights at the military-sponsored National Convention, due to be completed this week.

The thin-skinned junta bridled at the criticism. A series of articles in The New Light of Myanmar, the regime’s mouthpiece, contained warnings of a possible showdown and “punishment”.

The regime appears to have thought it was time to contain Min Ko Naing and other activists because they were the only group whose boldness and defiance were gaining international attention. If the regime intended to force through a “road map” to democracy that has been dismissed as a sham by most observers, Min Ko Naing and his group were a thorn in their side.

Analysts warned that the fuel price rises are the same kind of blunder that occurred in 1987 when then-dictator Ne Win’s government announced the demonetization of bank notes and left the general population without any money. The protests soon followed.

The recent crackdown has received worldwide attention, although to little avail. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the UN human rights investigator on Burma, last week in Geneva said he received allegations that some detainees have been “severely beaten and tortured”. US First Lady Laura Bush phoned UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to urge action against a crackdown by the junta in Burma. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for the UN Security Council and European Union to discuss the crisis in Burma. But the regime continues to ignore world opinion and arrests and intimidation continue.