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Past, Present Burmese Protests Share Common Elements


As Burma's military rulers try to end a month of protests with bullets and batons, the world is roundly condemning their actions. These are the biggest protests in the country since similar demonstrations in 1988 came to a swift halt after the military gunned down around 3,000 protesters. The question many are asking is - will the generals unleash the same kind of violence this time, or will they heed the call of the international community to find a peaceful solution? VOA correspondent Nancy-Amelia Collins, who covered the 1988 crackdown and has visited the country a number of times since, is in Jakarta and brings us this report.

There are some clear comparisons between the 1988 demonstrations and the protests now.

In 1988, as in 2007, the worsening economy was the catalyst. In 1987, Burma's government suddenly canceled certain currency notes, wiping out the life savings of millions of people overnight. The economic crisis led to months of student protests and calls for elections to end decades of harsh military rule.

In August 1988, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, calling for democracy. In September, after a coup brought a new set of generals to power, the military opened fire on protesters, killing around 3,000 people.

Their deaths abruptly ended the peaceful uprising for democracy.

This time, it was the doubling of fuel prices in August that brought protesters out - a few dozen at a time at first. When Burma's revered Buddhist monks took to the streets, the numbers rose to the tens of thousands.

One thing has changed, however.

"The difference is they [the government leaders] know they're being watched. The world is watching. In 1988 the world wasn't watching," said Janelle Saffrin, an Australian lawyer and Burma expert. "They were able to do what they did in secret, with impunity. And contrary to what some people say - they do care what the international community thinks, particularly their neighbor China."

China is Burma's main economic and political ally.

Independent verification on events unfolding in Burma is impossible to obtain because foreign journalists are not allowed into the country.

Much of the information coming out of the country is from Burmese citizens writing on Web logs and posting photos and videos of the violence over the Internet.

This has prompted governments worldwide to condemn the violence and call on the military junta to peacefully resolve the situation.

Just as in 1988, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is at the heart of the protests. However, unlike in 1988, when she was at the forefront of protests and rallies, the government now keeps her locked up at her family home in Rangoon.

When the military allowed elections in 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won in a landslide. The junta, however, never allowed the NLD to take power.

Aung San Suu Kyi has spent 11 of the last 18 years under house arrest. In 2002, when she was briefly freed, the Nobel Peace Prize winner said the world must realize that Burma's crushing poverty can not end without democratic reform.

"If they want economic improvement in Burma, they've got to help the political situation to improve," she said. "I do not think that there can be real economic progress without democracy."

As people around the world watch, the events in Burma slowly play out. Already, diplomats in Rangoon say, troops may have killed dozens of people. Many regional experts say they fear the situation is likely to get worse.

Bob Templer, the Asia program director of the International Crisis Group in New York, says he thinks the protests will continue despite the crackdown.

"The discontent and the huge array of problems in the country have been around for decades," he said. "So I think it will carry on in one form or another until a significant change."

Experts say that likely means more bloodshed and economic pain in a country that has been brutalized and impoverished by more than 40 years of military rule.

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