Can Burma’s People Rise Again?

The Sunday Protest in Rangoon. Over 400 people participated in the silent

rally against the price rise of fuel in Burma by the military junta.

Photo courtesy : Burma Digest

It may not be an uprising like the one in 1988, but in the face of massive intimidation Burma’s traumatized citizens appear increasingly willing to defy the military junta. After almost a week of demonstrations, the people of Rangoon appear to have proven that they have not totally surrendered to the autocratic regime that murdered the country’s citizens into submission in 1988.

It is questionable how far the protests will go, but Rangoon, renamed Yangon by the largely unloved regime, has turned into a citadel of small but persistent demonstrations. Within a week, the normally quiet city has witnessed a series of continuing protests, many of them broken up by thugs.

At least eight pro-democracy activists, whose protest roots date back to the 1988 democracy uprising that ended in a storm of bullets and the resumption of power by the current ruling junta, were seized Wednesday on Rangoon’s streets as armed police and a government-backed “youth group” of pro-regime enforcers dispersed the growing number of demonstrators.

As many as 300 marchers walked from Rangoon’s outskirts with thousands looking on. Significantly, it was the senior leadership of the so-called 1988 Student Generation Group who were among those arrested in the most serious crackdown in a decade.

The protests have been driven by a steep rise in the price of fuel from 1,500 kyat (US$1= kyat 1,300) to 3,000 kyat per gallon for diesel and 2,500 kyat for gasoline. Similarly, the price of a 17-gallon container of natural gas was raised by 2,500 kyat. The price rises appear to have catalyzed a widespread catalogue of grievances.

"We cannot help increasing the price of commodities, as it has become costly to transport them to our stall," said a businessman who runs a grocery stall in the Aung San market in downtown Rangoon. The stall owner, who asked not to be named, added that it has become impossible to live in Rangoon given the rising prices of commodities.

The protest started Sunday in northern Rangoon where nearly 400 people, clad in traditional longyi sarongs, male and female, started a silent journey without placards or shouted slogans, from the suburb of Kekiring to the Kyaukmyong market. There was no attempt to disrupt traffic.

"The people on the streets welcomed us with their waving hands. Even some passengers of buses and private cars got down to join us in the rally," Win Naing told Asia Sentinel. Generally, he said, bystanders were enthusiastic and eager to show their irritation with the junta. The participants made no demands to withdraw the skyrocketing prices, but instead protested that they did not even have the means to pay Rangoon’s cheap bus fares.

The Irrawaddy, a Burmese exile magazine in Thailand, reported that the protests continued on Thursday “in several townships of Rangoon and in Magwe Division in central Burma, with some participants suffering beatings and detention by authorities and pro-government mobs, according to witnesses.”

Local newspapers largely ignored the demonstrations. The government run English daily The New Light of Myanmar was silent on the Sunday protest.

The news desk of Myanmar Times, a semi-government controlled weekly in Rangoon, was called by Asia Sentinel. A male voice denied having any information. After a longer wait, the voice said, “I have no idea about any rally. Sorry, we have no such reports.”

Another rally began on August 22 before it was broken up by a gang of government supporters. Nonetheless, 150 pro-democracy activists rallied before they were set upon by more than 200 junta supporters. Protest leaders were whisked way by the junta enforcers. Women in large numbers also tried to march towards Insein prison in northern Rangoon, which has detained more than 1,000 political prisoners, including journalists.

The New Light of Myanmar acknowledged finally on Aug. 22 that authorities had arrested protesters for “trying to malign the image of Burma.”

With a dateline from Pyinmana, the new capital of Burma that the junta is building near Mandalay, the paper described the protesters “as taking advantage of the increase in fuel prices, internal and external destructive elements (to) have provoked the people since 15 August to ensure their three strategies meet with success."

It also acknowledged that “authorities concerned have taken into custody and are interrogating the so-called 88 Generation students Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Pyone Cho (alias Htay Win Aung), Min Zeya, Mya Aye (alias Thura), Kyaw Min Yu (Jimmy), Kyaw Kyaw Htwe (alias Markee), Arnt Bwe Kyaw, Panneik Tun, Zaw Zaw Min, Thet Zaw and Nyan Lin Tun for their acts.”

In 1988, Min Ko Naing was an almost legendary figure. Then 26, he was the leader of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, a student group that opposed the decades of military rule that began the year he was born, 1962. Min Ko Naing and his fellow student leaders helped to propel the 1988 uprising that virtually shut down the country in what may have been the largest peaceful protest in modern Asian history.

He was later arrested and served 16 years behind bars, suffering extreme torture at the hands of the regime. After democracy leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, he is considered the country’s second leading dissident, a charismatic and uncompromising activist.

In a telephone interview with Asia Sentinel from his residence in Rangoon, Win Naing, a prominent student leader turned politician, claimed that Burma would see more and more protests against the junta. "I should not say another uprising like ’88 has taken place. But I am hopeful that the exploited people, who have shown extraordinary zeal to come out to the streets, would pave the way for a massive demonstration against the regime very soon," he added.

The junta, of course, has all the guns, and the backing of governments like China, India and South Korea eager to capitalize on the country’s considerable energy resources. The chances of an uprising succeeding are very small. But Rangoon’s residents remain sullen, dissatisfied and under increasing economic pressure.

In many other countries this has proven more powerful than political repression.