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Burma Crackdown Condemned, but Not Unexpected

The situation in Burma remains tense following a military crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators. At least one person is dead. The crackdown is aimed at halting anti-government protests that began more than a month ago, in what has become the biggest challenge to military rule in almost two decades. VOA's Bill Rodgers reports.

The protest movement, spearheaded by Buddhist monks, began in mid-August, sparked by a hike in fuel prices. It escalated as more Burmese took to the streets to call for democracy.

The demonstrations are the first major protests since 1988 when the military violently crushed a student-led movement. "It is certainly unexpected and it is very much a replay of what happened in '88," said Burma specialist Vanda Felbab-Brown at Georgetown University. "And it's, I think, very significant, and both the junta and many analysts were surprised by the level of protests that we are witnessing. And they demonstrate how brittle the regime is."

The military government has reacted by imposing a ban on large gatherings and on Wednesday security forces fired into crowds of protesters.

The crackdown was not unexpected, and puts the military in a difficult situation. Walter Lohman is an Asia specialist at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. "The monks are revered in the populace and even to a certain extent they're revered among the military," he says. "And so the military regime is in a position where it has to crack down, and to do that it has to go through the monks to get there, and that's a very difficult spot for them to be."

At the State Department, spokesman Tom Casey Wednesday denounced the crackdown. "We condemn all violence against peaceful demonstrators and remind the country's leaders of their personal responsibility for their actions," he said. "We call on the authorities to stop violence and open a process of dialogue with pro-democracy leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi and representatives of ethnic minorities."

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years. Her party won free elections in 1990, but the results were annulled.

The military has kept a tight grip on Burma since 1962, suppressing dissent and keeping the country isolated. Its current rulers have defied pressure aimed at breaking its hold on power.

During his speech before the U.N. General Assembly Tuesday, President Bush expanded the U.S. sanctions and called for more international pressure on Burma. "I urge the United Nations and all nations to use their diplomatic and economic leverage to help the Burmese people reclaim their freedom," said the president.

Yet sanctions may not work against Burma's military as they have in other countries. "The big difference in Burma is that the Burmese live under self-isolation," notes Walter Lohman of the Heritage Foundation. "They have since 1962. That's part of the reason why the sanctions aren't as effective as they might otherwise be. Part of the reason is that [the sanctions] are unilateral, but the other reason is because the Burmese themselves want to be i solated. I think the generals there have very limited view of the world. They look out their window and if that's what they control then they're happy."

Wednesday's crackdown was greeted by protests in the Philippines and elsewhere, along with other expressions of condemnation around the world.

Among them, First Lady Laura Bush who spoke to VOA Wednesday. "I'm very concerned. I pray for the people of Burma. I'm awed by their courage," said Mrs. Bush.