Burma’s Growing Dilemma

With as many as 100,000 people on the street in a holiday atmosphere and film stars joining the crowds, there were increasing signs Tuesday that a nervous Burmese government is nearing a crisis point after six weeks of protests against the repressive regime. Texted one observer from Rangoon: "Another Inspirational Day! Protest ended peacefully despite earlier threat from SPDC. Total estimate ~ 100,000 in 12 cities + no less than 200,000 in Rangoon. Army trucks stationed & on patrol. Activists worried about arrests 2nite. Will keep you posted."

Earlier Tuesday, trucks mounted with loudspeakers took to the streets in Rangoon, with local officials telling the crowds to give up the protest movement and go home. "ALERT! Army trucks patrolling in Rangoon and telling people using loudspeakers not to do demonstrations or action will be taken – including onlookers," a bystander said in a text message sent from the country’s largest city.

On Tuesday, official warnings and loudspeakers were ignored by as many as 30,000 Buddhist monks and up to 70,000 supporters who marched out of the Shwedagon Pagoda, the country’s glistening gold-encrusted shrine, through the center of the city in a peaceful demonstration amid growing tension. Beyond that, Irrawaddy, a Burmese exile magazine based in Thailand, reported that demonstrations were breaking out all over the country. About 10,000 monks marched through Mandalay Tuesday, reciting the metta sutta, the Buddhist words of loving kindness that monks have repeated daily in their growing protests. They were accompanied by thousands of onlookers in the procession. Other demonstrators took to the streets in Moulmein and other cities.

Thailand-based analyst Aung Naing Oo, said Tuesday, “I think they are clearly trying to separate the monks and the people. This is one of the military's first clear tactics, and it's a very important one. From the military's standpoint, it's crucial to separate the people from the monks.

”The second step will be for them to send plain clothes agents around the monasteries to intimidate and divide the monks. This is a very important strategy, but I don't know how successful it will be. They cannot separate the people and the monks very easily.”

But even in tightly controlled Burma, one of the last countries in the world to enter the information age, a text message alert is a sign that the face of protest here is also changing. The use of mobile phones and the Internet helped spur the overthrow of repressive regimes in Eastern Europe, coordinate protests that ousted Joseph Estrada in the Philippines in 2001 and aid demonstrators staging impromptu demonstrations in China.

Despite tight controls on Internet access and mobile technology in Burma, word of the protests are reaching the outside world instantly through Instant Messaging networks and text messages. Indeed, in the 1990s anti-regime activists in Burma pioneered the use of Internet bulletin boards to keep alive the message of dissent long after international attention had faded away from the protests of 1988 and the voided elections of 1990.

Funded by the Open Society Institute of international financier and philanthropist George Soros, BurmaNet and similar ventures helped to get information out of Burma and keep communication lines open, Wired magazine wrote in 1996. Given the speed with which information sources have reacted to the current unrest, the foundations for using what technology is well established.

Bloggers in Rangoon have been circumventing Internet controls to send pictures and reports of the protests to a variety of opposition Web sites around the world. Mizzima News, an India-based site run by exiled dissidents, ran a photo of Aung San Suu Kyi it obtained from inside Burma, AFP reported, and the site had more than 50,000 people visit in a day.

"People were saying they wanted to see more pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi," Sein Win, Mizzima's managing editor, told AFP. "We have many volunteers in Rangoon. They are mostly university students and they keep sending us messages, pictures and video clips about the demonstrations."

The swelling numbers and the outside world’s intense scrutiny are presenting the ruling State Peace and Development Council, led by Senior General Than Shwe, with a fast-escalating predicament. In 1988, after months of demonstrations, the junta replied with overwhelming force, killing as many as 3,000 demonstrators over several days. Soldiers have been reported taking up positions in Mandalay, adding to the tension.

After starting in mid-August, the protests, which started over five-fold increases in fuel prices, had nearly flickered out as plainclothes thugs beset demonstrators, beating them and dragging as many as 200 of their leaders to jail. It was a grim reminder of the tactics that have kept the junta in power since 1988, despite its overwhelmingly loss of parliamentary elections in 1990 to the National League for Democracy, whose leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, remains an icon of hope despite years of house arrest.

However, in a disastrous miscalculation, supporters of the junta beat and fired over the heads of protesting monks, reportedly killing one, in Pakoku, a city near Mandalay earlier, causing pandemonium. When government officials went to the monastery to apologize, the monks set upon them, taking a half dozen hostage and burning their vehicle as up to 1,000 people looked on. As the monks demanded an apology that never came, the confrontation spread from city to city.

That leaves Than Shwe and his fellow leaders in an unappetizing dilemma. If the protests grow, there is little doubt that an outraged citizenry will try to drive them from power, with unpredictable consequences. In 1988 isolated supporters of the regime were murdered by mobs bent on revenge before the army imposed its iron-fisted order. Many analysts believe the generals worry about their own physical survival should they fall from power.

If the regime refuses to negotiate with the opposition or allow international mediation and opts to start shooting, they risk being driven deeper into isolation by outraged nations. Even the normally docile Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which allowed Burma into the group a decade ago with the hope of cajoling it into liberalizing, is growing concerned. The group has been admonished by the West for failing to press Rangoon to reform.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar warned Tuesday that the junta should take steps toward national reconciliation before it is too late. "We believe that reconciliation is the best process for peaceful transition to democracy," Syed Hamid said. The Philippines called outright for democracy in Burma, while Thailand has expressed concern about the restive situation on its border.

But the trump cards remain China and India. China issued a careful statement Monday saying it had no intention of interfering with the internal affairs of a neighbor nation. "As a friendly neighboring country of Myanmar, China hopes to see stability and economic development in Myanmar," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said, using the junta’s name for the country. Jiang called on Burma to "properly handle" the situation.

The crisis could become especially thorny for China if it reaches the UN Security Council, where the U.S. and the EU could push for action. “The Chinese have already been implicated in Darfur and would not want another problem on their doorstep,” said Aung Naing Oo, “especially with the 2008 Olympics right around the corner. The Chinese are very concerned about a military crackdown.”

India has remained silent altogether. Both China and India have extensive commercial ties with Burma, primarily for energy and timber. Agricultural products are also growing Burmese exports.

With reporting by Daniel Ten Kate