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Defying Burma’s Military Rulers


In 1988, pro-democracy demonstrations in Burma turned into a bloody nightmare as the military ruthlessly suppressed the protests. Now, a similar scenario is again unfolding in Burma, posing the most serious threat to the government in 19 years.

Though the protests of 1988 and 2007 are political, analysts say both were initially sparked by economic grievances.

In 1987, Burma's then-military ruler General Ne Win ordered a devaluation of the currency, which cut deeply into the pockets of ordinary Burmese. This year, another military government ordered a 500 percent rise in fuel prices, creating more economic hardship.

Catalyst for Change

Bridget Welsh, a professor of Southeast Asia studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, says Burma's economy is in desperate shape. She says that while growth has been uneven and has not helped most ordinary Burmese, the generals have not suffered.

"Ordinary people see the military officials and the government people with very nice cars, very nice houses, and they themselves are very starkly struck by the contrast of where their economic conditions are,” says Welsh. “And when you raise fuel prices 500 percent, basically putting a tremendous burden on ordinary people, the impact is quite significant because they ask, 'How come you get to have a Mercedes car, and I can't even afford to get to work?'”

Nineteen years ago, the military moved swiftly to brutally suppress the pro-democracy movement, killing hundreds if not thousands of people and throwing countless more into jail. This time, the government was slow to react. Protests began in August and continued on a daily basis in Rangoon, Mandalay and several other cities before the government cracked down.

Robert Templer, head of the Asia program for the International Crisis Group, says the government's puzzling relocation of the capital to a city far from Rangoon in 2005 may partly explain the government's initial hesitation. "The government is actually based in a city about 200 miles [320 kilometers] north of Rangoon in a very isolated, heavily guarded, essentially military camp called Nyapidaw. And so they're actually quite a long ways from these demonstrations. And one has to question actually how much they were really were aware of what was going on immediately, certainly at the higher ranks," says Templer.

Buddhist Monks Play Key Role

Buddhist monks, who are greatly revered in Burma, were the first to protest the price hike. Marvin Ott, professor of National Security Strategy at the U.S. National War College, says that was a powerful challenge to the generals. "The monks are the custodians of and the embodiment of Burma's traditional Buddhist culture. They are the moral authority. They are the most respected, I think it is fair to say, segment of society. And for them to in effect pronounce judgment publicly on the regime, harsh judgment, is a powerful indictment."

Analysts say there likely was intense debate within the ruling State Peace and Development Council, as it is known, about directly confronting the monks. Bridget Welsh says the hardliners probably prevailed because there was a fair degree of resentment in ruling circles that the Buddhist clergy they had worked to co-opt turned on them. "They bought them off. They built new pagodas. They gave high levels of donations. They used visits to the monasteries and to the pagodas as a means of actually trying to aggrandize their support. They're being undercut by an institution that felt they had adequate support from," says Welsh.

It is not clear who is coordinating civilian participation in the current protests. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has spent 12 of the past 18 years under house arrest, and many of the leaders of her National League for Democracy, or NLD, are aging, dead or in jail.

Pro-Democracy Leadership

Robert Templer says time and repression have taken their toll on the NLD. "The NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi in particular still have enormous symbolic weight even now. They're still regarded in some ways as the kernel of democracy in this country. They really don't have much else in the way of leadership capacity at the moment, partially because they're in jail or under house arrest or in exile, nor do they have much in the way of organization because that's been crushed by the military."

Bridget Welsh says new, previously unknown pro-democracy organizers are emerging who hold similar views to those of both the NLD and the Buddhist religious community but who are organizationally separate from them. "Here in the U.S. there's a tendency of putting everything on Aung San Suu Kyi and everything on the NLD when, in fact -- that is not to say that their role isn't important; it is -- but to recognize that there are different actors involved here and that there's going to be a diverse perspective," says Welsh.

One key difference, too, between 1988 and now is technology. The government has had to scramble to block new modes of communication. But there are cell phones, small video cameras and computers in Burma. Pictures of the protests are still getting out quickly, and international reaction to the protests and the government's response has been far more swift than it was in the dark and bloody days of August, 1988.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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