Cracks Showing in Burma's Junta

Elements of Burma’s ruling junta are saying privately that the worsening crisis in Rangoon is provoking fear and misgiving among the upper echelons of the nation’s military elite, who may refuse to shoot at monks, Asia Sentinel has been told.

Sources say that foreign diplomats are heading for Rangoon, perhaps on a chartered flight, to seek a way out of the worst crisis the country’s ruling military junta has faced since seizing power in 1988 in a bloody crackdown on democracy protesters.There are signs that a diplomatic initiative to find a solution to the crisis in Burma is underway as splits may be developing in the ruling junta.

At least some of the ruling junta’s generals are reported to be “in shock” at the uprising of the nation’s revered clerics. With monks in play, the crisis is worse than the junta could have imagined and some military leaders are reportedly deeply worried that the situation may already be out of hand.

A source informed Asia Sentinel that some regional commanders have sent word to their superiors that they will not attack monks. They will reportedly guarantee the safety of the monks.

The wild card in the crisis is the role of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and leader of the opposition National League for Democracy. The generals despise "the lady," as she is known, sources say, and some alternative to her may need to be found.

While she has not had a leading role in the current protests, Aung San Suu Kyi is inevitably a major figure in any protest. With the outside world, especially the United States and the EU, focused on her it would be difficult to imagine a scenario in which she did not play a role. While there are deep divisions within the Burmese opposition, most dissidents are united in their respect for the dedication that has led her to spend most of the last 20 years under house arrest.

Sources in Rangoon say the crisis could go either way, with some elite officers willing to contemplate change and others willing to spill blood again as they did in 1988. Observers believe there is a split in the powerful army, with at least some senior officers looking for a way to move the country forward.

One source insisted that changes have begun to be rumored at upper levels of the military but that it is almost impossible to tell what the early shifts mean. For years analysts and diplomats have said that senior officers fear for their own physical safety in any political transition because of the degree of animosity directed against them by the population.

“If a diplomatic initiative gets back to the monks,” argued an analyst. “It will embolden them because they will know there is movement.”

The diplomatic maneuvering and word of concern in the upper ranks of the military came as the junta went into action Wednesday, arresting and shooting demonstrators at two of the country's holiest shrines and sealing the country off from the outside world as marchers attempted to walk from Shwedagon Pagoda to Sule Pagoda in Rangoon. As many as seven people were reported killed, although the figure could not be confirmed independently.

The ruling junta slapped a nighttime curfew on Rangoon on Wednesday and declared the entire city a military "restricted" area, after days of mass street protests driven by tens of thousands of Buddhist monks. About 50 monks were arrested and taken away as troops assailed hundreds of demonstrators, beating them and using tear gas on them, according to reports from the scene.

The violent onslaught sent citizens fleeing in panic and provoked howls of anger as soldiers dispersed crowds.

After holding back as the peaceful nationwide protests led by Burma's barefoot monks swelled in numbers, the junta’s soldiers stormed the crowds Wednesday in clashes, wielding guns and batons as to break up a march of about 10,000 citizens and monks who were heading to Sule Pagoda, the end-point for the largest anti-junta protests since the junta used mass killings to quash a pro-democracy uprising in 1988. Citing sources at a Rangoon hospital, Reuters reported that one person died of a gunshot wound and five others were also shot and were undergoing treatment. Monks and other people were beaten and hauled into waiting trucks, agencies reported.

It was also reported the Internet access to the country was being disabled and that steps were taken to limit the use of mobile telephones. Outsiders have been relying on bloggers and others inside the repressive country to provide a steady stream of information since the protests began. It is notoriously difficult for journalists to enter the country.

Marchers chanting Buddhist prayers defied an order that restricted gatherings in Rangoon to no more than five people. Monks urged people to protect stand back and allow the clerics to absorb the brunt of the struggle. On Tuesday night, the first in which the military enforced a curfew, security forces snatched more than a dozen student activists and popular figures, including comedians, poets and actors, from their homes.

Many Burmese expected Wednesday's crackdown, as the protests that began last month when authorities increased fuel prices quickly escalated after junta forces used violence against monks. As thousands hit the streets, the military faced a dilemma: crack down on the monks and risk an escalation of the conflict, or do nothing and make average citizens more confident to join the marches.

"For the Burmese, the use of force is not surprising," said Khin Ohmar, head of the Asia-Pacific People's Partnership for Burma, an umbrella group of NGOs. "It was just a matter of time. Living under this regime, people know what to expect."

Khin Omar, who said a girl was shot and wounded on the corner of 34th street and Mahabandoola Road in Rangoon, called on countries around the world to speak out.

"We really need the international community to take immediate action against the regime," she said. "People will continue to defy the orders and take on the violence. Hopefully the international community won't just sit at the UN General Assembly while another killing field takes place."

The junta, headed by General Than Shwe, is despised by its people and deplored by much of the world. Its lifeline appears to be solid economic ties with China and India. China has encouraged "national reconciliation" but said little else.

"The response by the Chinese Foreign Ministry was lame and unconstructive," said Dave Mathieson, a Burma consultant with Human Rights Watch. "The support the Chinese are giving to the SPDC [State Peace and Development Council] is just selfish so they can maintain access to raw materials and trade."

The US and Britain reacted strongly against the regime. On Tuesday, US President George W. Bush announced that the US would tighten sanctions against Burma.

After reports of shooting surfaced on Wednesday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for a meeting of the UN Security Council.

"The whole issue of sanctions is going to take on a new dimension," Brown said, according to the BBC. "I hope the whole world will make its views known and will make the Burmese regime realize it is not only unacceptable, but they will be held to account in the eyes of the whole world."

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) on Wednesday released a letter from a prominent abbot at an urban monastery in Rangoon addressed to Than Shwe that calls on the military regime "to restore the people's power to its original owner."

U Thangara Linkara, abbot of the Dhamma Yeiktha Monastery in Rangoon, wrote: "The root cause is power. Those individuals who temporarily held the people's power on behalf of the people have prolonged [their hold on power] for their own purposes for over 60 years. The original owners of power, the people, have been made innocent victims: more and more repressed and poor and impoverished. In fact, the people's power should be in the people's hands, so that people can live comfortably and free from difficulty."

With Wednesday's crackdown, it now becomes a waiting game to see if Burma’s unarmed monks and citizens will continue to defy the regime’s guns. As the junta proved again yesterday, protestors could easily pay with their lives.

"The bravery of the demonstrators is astounding because they know just how violently the government can react," said Mathieson of Human Rights Watch. "They know that whenever they go out on the streets they could be shot to death."

Many analysts are wary about speculating on what will happen next, saying it largely depends on just how much the latest violent crackdown will deter the citizenry from showing dissent. But regardless of how many people show up on the streets in the coming days, the root causes of the discontent remain and will only fester over time.

"There is the possibility the numbers may drop, but then again thousands still defied the junta today," Khin Ohmar said. "If the numbers drop, that doesn't mean the movement will be stopping anytime soon."