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Rumblings in Myanmar

Print edition : Oct 19, 2007 T+T-
A protest march by Buddhist monks in Yangon against the military regime in late September.-AP

A protest march by Buddhist monks in Yangon against the military regime in late September.-AP

A tidal wave of shared anger sweeps through Myanmar as monks make common cause with anti-junta forces.

A protest march

A SEA of humanity surges through the streets of Yangon. As the new tide of peaceful protest lashes the military dictatorship, video camera-wielding citizen journalists document the story for the world outside. In prime focus is the graphic video-tale of a spontaneous, yet disciplined, movement for political and economic justice.

With access denied to professional journalists, coverage of Myanmar has been made possible by some citizens and sympathisers of the protesters, including foreigners. These people have put their mobile phones and video cameras to good use and sent out some stunning images of Inside Burma, showing the protests and the fiery crackdown through the Internet.

Captured, as never before in Myanmars troubled history since independence, are poignant video images of disciplined columns of protesters marching in unison. With Buddhist monks arriving on the scene to lead the demonstrators, who had begun to waver at one stage, the overwhelming impact was that of a saffron revolution.

The 1988 pro-democracy uprising, which was quelled ruthlessly by the military, seemed to fade in comparison. Several thousands of protesters were killed then. The latest upsurge has not caused that kind of a death toll until early October. Yet, the Internet and the satellite-uplinking of pictures have turned this new uprising into a mega media event.

Difficult to be sure, though, is whether the uprising has turned into a revolution in tactical recess or whether the junta has simply pressed the pause button before fast-forwarding the crackdown at a time of its choice.

The junta is not the only regime in modern history known to own a country, in contrast to the political norm of a state possessing an army and other military forces. But this much-hated government, which calls itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), is fast beginning to recognise that its day of democratic reckoning may not be too far.

On October 5, the United Nations Security Council discussed the regimes brutal suppression of the monks, students and other protesters, who rose in an amazingly peaceful revolt for several weeks. Shortly before the Council began its session, the SPDC, in a rare gesture, acknowledged the importance of Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy campaigner, Nobel Peace laureate and perhaps the worlds most famous political prisoner today.

The state-owned Myanmar Television showed a brief but vivid video clip of a meeting between Suu Kyi and U.N. Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari. They met twice in Yangon, Myanmars largest city and former capital, during Gambaris four-day crisis-busting mission that began on September 29.

On the night of October 4, SPDC Chairman Than Shwe dramatically held out an olive branch, or at least a clipped one, after he felt confident about having succeeded in his crackdown on the protesters and political dissidents. But it was not clear whether the olive branch was a genuine offer or a propaganda piece. The SPDCs State Television reported that Senior General Than Shwe would personally meet Suu Kyi if she were to declare that she would indeed give up her ongoing efforts at engineering a confrontation with the rulers.

On October 2, the SPDC began its rare public relations exercise, with an eye firmly set on the international community. It was again the State Television which showed video clips of Than Shwe and his fellow generals greeting Gambari. Regardless of the mood and atmosphere during their actual talks, the footage was intended to project the picture of a military leader in control of his country. Than Shwe, with a measured smile, was shown as being at ease in the presence of a man who had come to deliver a strong message of international disapproval of the SPDCs brutal action.

As Frontline went to press, the international communitys efforts to heal the deep wounds caused by Than Shwes crackdown, by facilitating a political settlement through dialogue between him and Suu Kyi, were just beginning.

How did the latest struggle begin at a time when the SPDC was under no real international pressure to address any of the issues at stake the total absence of democracy and the abject poverty of the vast majority of citizens across a land endowed with rich natural resources? The first and feeble signs of a potential uprising were noticed on August 15. People were outraged at the steep hike in fuel prices. First on the scene to articulate the genuine grievances of a totally apolitical people were the activists of the 88 Students Generation.

True to its name, the group, which was formed by some of the surviving student leaders of the 1988 uprising, seeks to tread an independent path. The group is neither a self-effacing and close ally of Suu Kyis National League for Democracy (NLD) nor its sworn competitor for political space in a possible democratic future.

Early this year, the group succeeded in influencing people to write letters to Than Shwe, urging him to initiate reforms in the political and economic domains. Another petition, in which the group sought the release of political prisoners, was estimated to have elicited 500,000 signatures within a few weeks.

As the group swung into action to organise a protest over the fuel price rise, the SPDC sensed a new threat from this quarter. Far from addressing the concerns of the poor, the regime began to demonise the 88 Students Generation in an unprecedented manner. On August 21, the SPDC arrested several leaders of the group, including Min Ko Naing, widely expected to emerge as a leader on the pro-democracy opposition turf.

The arrests took considerable wind out of the sail of the anti-price-rise demonstrators. However, the SPDC did not recognise the fact that the price rise affected not just the poor, the largest constituency in Myanmar, but also other sections of society, including the highly organised monks in the Buddhist-majority country.

Ibrahim Gambari, United

Suddenly, in early September, reports surfaced about a raid on a Buddhist monastery by some SPDC soldiers. The monks there were said to have taken the matter seriously, but the regime and even the international community treated the reported incident as an instance of localised trouble. Soon, however, the disaffected monks began joining the ranks of the poor. Under what circumstances the monks, in their thousands, made a strategic decision to lead the anti-junta movement, which had lost the guidance of 88 Students Generation, was not clear by early October.

However, as the anti-SPDC movement gathered momentum in the second half of September, the monks made common cause with other anti-junta forces. There was indeed a tidal wave of shared anger against the military rulers.

Leading prayerful protests, the monks surprised the minions of the SPDC, largely isolated in their distant and insular capital. Emboldened by the overwhelming presence of the monks, many civilians shed their fear or apathy or both and joined the protest marches. Unarmed, the teeming crowds finally reflected the growing groundswell of popular anger against the regime. In the earlier stages of this movement, the monks served as a moving mass of human shield for other civilians, who, fearful of a possible onslaught by the junta, hoped that the clerics would provide an insurance against such a denouement.

As the movement gathered pace, with soldiers and the police staying away from the scenes of protest, the monks soon found themselves being protected by other civilians who linked their arms to form the outer rings of the marching columns. By now, a mass movement, regardless of political grievances or economic demands or social equations, was well and truly under way. The NLD was as much a player and a spectator as the other groups.

In this momentous milieu, some police personnel, apparently out of respect for the clergy, allowed hundreds of monks to file past Suu Kyis residence, where she remains under house arrest. Having led the NLD to a landslide victory in the 1990 general elections and having been prevented from ruling the country, with the generals annulling the results of the democratic exercise, Suu Kyi has been in some form of detention since then.

As the monks approached the gates of her house, Suu Kyi came out and stood at the main entrance, unhindered by the security guards posted there, and greeted the religious men in a solemn and silent manner. They, in turn, stood in her presence and chanted hymns, without seeking to engage her in a conversation. The event, which lasted about 15 minutes, became the defining moment of this movement.

On the night of September 25, the SPDC finally mobilised troops on the streets of Yangon and other centres like Mandalay and warned potential protesters against assembling any further in public places. Curfews were imposed, prohibitory orders were issued and the iconic Shwedagon pagoda and the Sule pagoda in Yangon were barricaded. Pagodas across the country became focal points of the protest.

On September 26 and 27, as protesters continued to pour out on to the streets, soldiers and the police baton-charged, fired warning shots, tear-gassed and directly shot at and killed many of them, all unarmed. The SPDC claimed that the soldiers and the police were provoked, while Myanmarese dissident groups in exile in neighbouring Thailand, with direct links to the protesters, maintained that the firings were unprovoked.

Soldiers in Yangon

The SPDC maintained that only nine protesters and a Japanese freelance photo-journalist, on a tourist visa, got killed. Dissident sources put the toll at 100-plus, perhaps 200. With the authorities saying that 2,000 persons, including monks, were arrested after monasteries were stormed, the dissidents placed the figure at 6,000.

In the wake of the crackdown, which lasted three or four days, fear descended on Myanmar in the place of what the dissidents described as a reign of terror that was earlier unleashed to silence the people.

Dissident sources in Thailand, like Soe Aung and Maung Maung of the National Council of the Union of Burma, gave Frontline graphic accounts of the protest and the crackdown. Maung Maung sees the U.N. intervention as a new dynamic on the Myanmar political scene.

Soe Aung wants a democratic power like India to engage the parties concerned in order to prevent the bloodbath of 1988 repeating itself and to promote a democracy-centred political settlement. The SPDC-promoted process of constitution-making is seen to be a major casualty of the present movement.

Unemployed youth in

The British Ambassador to Myanmar, Mark Canning, said the protest, the crackdown and the U.N. involvement had now changed the political dynamics in Myanmar in a fundamental fashion. The SPDC entered into a dialogue with the American envoy in Yangon. Australia, another activist-country on the scene, refused to accredit a Myanmar military general as his countrys new Ambassador in Canberra.

Behind the scenes, China is understood to have influenced the SPDC to engage the U.N. in the new circumstances, although Beijing believes that the current Myanmar crisis poses no threat to peace and stability in East Asia or on the global stage.

With Myanmars political future still hanging in balance, the question is whether the U.N. should press for a quick transfer of power to a new democratic order or follow the pre-crisis prescription of experts like Morten B. Pedersen that gradual confidence-building measures might help the country escape its conflict trap.