Burma’s question

Aung Zaw
26 September 2007

The rare and steadfast protests in Rangoon and other Burmese cities in August-September 2007, and the military regime's violent crackdown on the demonstrators and key activists, leave the fragile opposition movement still politically isolated and faced with the quandary of who will lead it and what direction it will take. Moreover, even as the convulsion in Burma has clearly drawn renewed gained worldwide attention to the country, there is little sign of concerted, effective international support that could encourage and empower Burma's voices for change.

The first significant protest in more than a decade was driven by a fivefold increase in the fuel price and increases in other commodities. But the peaceful gatherings from 19 August quickly took on a political dimension. Now, Burma's dissidents and observers both at home and abroad are wondering if and how this fresh expression of dissent can sustain its momentum.

Aung Zaw is the editor of the Irrawaddy magazine based in Thailand.

The activists arrested and jailed in the crackdown that followed the initial protests include prominent former student leaders such as Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, who were leaders in the 1988 democracy uprising and who each spent about fifteen years in prison. In addition, four prominent women activists, including labour-rights advocates Su Su Nway and HIV-Aids campaigner Phyu Phyu Thin, remain in hiding as authorities conduct house-to-house searches across the former capital Rangoon and Pegu, to its north. Su Su Nway has reportedly run out of the medication she needs for a heart complaint.

The protests are in scale and impact still far from the nationwide uprising of 1988 - to which the military junta responded with crushing violence that killed more than 3,000 citizens, and by refusing to acknowledge the overwhelming election victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) that followed in 1990.

This, then, is not - yet - 1988. At the same time, four relevant factors surrounding the current protests suggest that they should not be underestimated.

A dynamic history

First, the involvement of those who took a prominent part in the epic events of nineteen years ago is an important signal of continuity in Burmese opposition politics.

Second, the protests have been small and sporadic but also persistent and widespread. They broke out in several areas beyond Rangoon - Pakokku, Bokalay, Lattputta, Sittwe as well as Pegu; and, most significantly, in Kyaukse, near Mandalay.

The reason why Kyaukse matters is that it is the hometown of Than Shwe, senior general of Burma's junta. There, the government has with Chinese aid built a number of factories that produce cement, bricks, bicycles, footwear and sewing machines. Than Shwe must indeed have been worried by the appearance on the city's streets of demonstrators challenging his rule.

Third, the fact that the regime anticipated the social and political unrest reflects its awareness of opposition to its rule. The government's preparations included placing its security officials on alert to attack and arrest activists.

In Rangoon, it also deployed its mass organization Swan-Arr-Shin ("masters of force") to attack street demonstrators, backed by thugs it had mobilised for the occasion. The overwhelming force against peaceful demonstrators was effective in its own terms: about 150 activists and street protestors were apprehended, though it still took two weeks for the protests in Rangoon to die down.

Also in openDemocracy on Burma:

Kyi May Kaung, "Burma's struggle, Aung San Suu Kyi's role" (8 August 2006)

Nick Cumming-Bruce, "Burma and the ICRC: a people at risk" (15 December 2006)

Kyi May Kaung, "A reality-check in Burma" (10 November 2006)

Karen Connolly, "The Lizard Cage" (22 February 2007)

Fourth, the appearance of Buddhist monks in demonstrations in Pakokku on 5 September, 370 miles northwest of Rangoon, is a vital development. Monks and their abbots - as "sons of the Lord Buddha" - carry real influence and authority in a Buddhist society like Burma, even if political leaders of every stripe tend to think they should stay away from worldly affairs (Burmese monks, together with Burma's political nationalists, were at the forefront of the independence struggle against British colonial rule in the 1930s and 1940s).

This Sangha community of (today) around 250-300,000 monks, along with students, were also central to the 1988 events. More recently, both groups have not been so visible in such acts of protest and dissent as are possible in Burma. There are signs that this too is changing.

This time, monks at a monastery in Pakokku had seen about ten of their brothers arrested when a peaceful demonstration involving hundreds of their number was violently broken up by the authorities. A witness to the scene said: "Three monks were tied to an electric pole and were beaten with rifle butts and bludgeons...one monk, named U Sandima, sustained head injuries." Official newspapers admitted that they also fired warning shots into the air, and monks later burned four vehicles belonging to officials.

The sequel is revealing. When around a dozen high-ranking officials visited the monks to order them to stop protesting, they found themselves held hostage for about six hours as their captors demanded the release of their imprisoned fellows. Now, a new national association of monks is demanding an apology from the government for its repression, further indicating the level of anger and confidence among their number.

Monks were among those killed in the bloody crackdown of 1988, and among those thrown into prison in the aftermath. The relationship between young monks especially and the military government has since been hostile. In 1990, for example, young monks across Burma refused to accept alms from military leaders following the post-rising onslaught against monasteries. Hundreds of monks and young novices who participated in the movement were later arrested and given further lengthy prison terms.

History never repeats itself in exactly the same way. The experience of the last nineteen years cannot be undone. But these four factors suggest that the energy and the political dynamic of 1988 remain alive, and are again in evidence.

A sham process

The cycle of protest and crackdown coincided with the junta's completion of the first stage of a new constitution for Burma - leaving six "stages" to go. This largely meaningless process began in 1993, after the military refused to give up power to the National League for Democracy after its clear victory in 1990's free and fair elections. The process is orchestrated through a national convention whose final session - charged with completing draft guidelines for the new constitution - opened in June 2007. It has been roundly denounced by the international community, as well as Burmese at home and abroad, as a sham.

But the connection between the constitutional process and the protests is more than one of timing. The thin-skinned junta had apparently bridled at criticism from Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi in an interview with the Washington-based radio station Radio Free Asia. The many Burmese listeners heard the two veteran dissidents speak out forcefully, but make no call to topple the regime. At one point, however, Ko Ko Gyi pointed out that the army was enjoying an increase in its privileges at the national convention, which completed its work on 3 September.

The response included a series of articles in the regime mouthpiece The New Light of Myanmar which warned of a possible showdown and "punishment" of internal enemies. The generals appear to have thought it was time to contain Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and other activists because the latter's boldness and defiance were gaining international recognition. If the regime intended to force through its constitutional "roadmap" - including a national referendum at the end of the seven-stage process - Min Ko Naing and his group were a thorn in the their side.

The generals, it is clear, are intent on remaining in control, and determined to push on with the constitutional process despite boycotts by the NLD and ethnic-minority groups in Burma. The first stage's final session is in character with the regime as a whole: many delegates are handpicked and freedom of discussion has been severely limited, confirming that its purpose is to assent to the guidelines laid down from above while leaving Burma's people in the dark about what happens next.

A study of the regime's "seven-point roadmap", introduced in 2004, indeed shows that any expectations of democracy are unrealistic. The much-vaunted final session is only the first step. Steps two and three to follow are only vaguely defined. The second stage is described as an "implementation of the process necessary for the emergence of a genuine and disciplined democratic system". No one knows what that means or how long will it take.

The third stage envisages the "drafting of a new constitution in accordance with basic principles and detailed basic principles laid down by the national convention". That implies that it may take many more years before a new constitution emerges. Only then will a national referendum be held, followed by elections. It's clear that the regime is buying the time it needs to install a handpicked government. Democracy has no place in this plan.

A friend in need

Meanwhile, thugs and security officials now rule the streets in Burma. The junta's gangs have followed and intimidated demonstrators, often beating them and hurling them into waiting trucks. Women are also being beaten, prompting onlookers angrily to intervene and risk arrest themselves.

The tactic of breaking up street demonstrations was developed as early as 1996 and 1997. The first victims were Tin Oo, the head of the NLD, and Aung San Suu Kyi. In May 2003, Suu Kyi and her convoy were again attacked by junta-backed mobs in central Burma, and an unknown number of people murdered. In an act of great cynicism, the assault was used to justify Suu Kyi's detention.

The recent crackdown, like the 2003 incident, has received worldwide attention, although to little avail. This is despite the fact that Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the United Nations human-rights investigator on Burma said in Geneva that he had received allegations that some detainees have been "severely beaten and tortured" and called for those arrested to be released.

Ibrahim Gambari, the Nigerian diplomat and special advisor to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, ended his silence after two weeks of repression by criticising the junta’s heavy-handedness. Then, on 10 September, it was announced that he is being despatched to talk to the the generals in mid-October 2007 in order to "pursue UN efforts to bring democracy and human rights" to Burma.

George W Bush joined the international condemnation, in his strongest comment yet on current events in Burma. The United States president, who was attending the Apec summit in Sydney, accused Burmese rulers of "tyrannical" behaviour in suppressing the peaceful protests. His wife Laura Bush phoned Ban Ki-moon to urge action against the crackdown, while British prime minister Gordon Brown called for the UN Security Council and the European Union to discuss the crisis in Burma.

Closer to home, however, Burma's neighbours are quiet. There are small signs of movement in expressions of concern from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, who admit that Asean's "constructive engagement" with Burma has not produced tangible results.

Amid the rhetoric in the outside world, the regime is confident that it can continue to ignore critical world opinion. It is reinforced in this stance by China and India as well its other, smaller neighbours, whose desire to maintain lucrative trade deals and exploit Burma's natural resources override any interest in the junta's brutal suppression of its own people.

China lends active political support to the regime, and in 2006 teamed with Russia to shoot down a US initiative to bring the Burma issue to the UN Security Council. India shamed its reputation as the world's largest democracy by flattering the generals in hope of winning contracts to buy Burmese gas and supply the regime with armaments.

The regime's uncompromising attitude has been encouraged by such signals to intensify its suppression of pro-democracy groups. A further manifestation, not related to the fuel protests, was the sentencing of six labour activists (conveyed by their families' lawyer on 8 September) to life imprisonment on sedition charges. Indeed, beyond public criticism and media editorials across the world, there appears little that can deter the generals.

The participants in Burma's rare demonstrations, facing vastly unequal odds, are indeed courageous. Yet anybody who has visited the country and found a way to communicate truthfully with its people will understand that they represent the vast majority of Burmese. It is rare to find a country whose residents hold their leaders in such utter contempt.

Despite the neglect or lack of solidarity from much of the world, Burmese still invest high expectations in the United Nations in particular. N Htay Kywe, a prominent activist who is now in hiding, even managed to send a letter appealing to the UN to intervene on behalf of Burma and to revive the Burma issue at the UN Security Council.

A Burmese question

Political change can be triggered in unexpected ways. The latest protest-wave is related to what businessmen in Rangoon see as the regime's plan to privatise fuel distribution, along with the sale of government-owned retail outlets to a private company. This is reminiscent of the blunder made in 1987 by the then absolute ruler Ne Win's government, when it suddenly announced the demonetisation of bank notes. That action - and Ne Win's speech of August 1987, in which he admitted past "mistakes" and proposed "economic reform" - only provided ammunition to an outraged public and dissidents who were fed up with his state-socialist regime. A year later, Ne Win was pushed aside by the next - and still current - crop of uniformed strong men.

It is a double-edged precedent. Popular hunger for change can be met with a reshuffle of the ruling elite that leaves the people as powerless as before. Yet the emancipatory surge of democratic energy in 1988 and after in Burma can never be underestimated or forgotten as an inspiration of what Burma's people are capable of.

Today, the rare protests in Burma are testing the international community's political will and the capacity of the UN to take action. Burma's people are again asking a question of the governments of the world and the main world body: how far and how much are you prepared to invest in the fight for justice and peaceful change in our country?

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