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A Year After Protests, Burma's Military Remains Firmly in Control

A year after Burma's military crushed protests led by Buddhist monks, human rights groups accuse the government of continuing to harass of the clergy. As Ron Corben reports from Bangkok, experts on Burma see little sign of change in the country, despite the recent release of thousands of prisoners.

A year ago this week thousands of Buddhist monks left their temples in Burma and led massive demonstrations against the military's mismanagement of the economy.

This monk, at a demonstration last year, calls for a countrywide protest, and urges people go to the revered Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon.

The protests began after the military dramatically raised fuel prices, which hit people hard in one of the world's poorest nations.

They culminated with up to 100,000 people marching through Rangoon on September 24.

Protesters call on the government to end the hardships the people face and to release political prisoners, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house detention.

But the military swiftly moved against the protesters. Many Burmese using mobile phones and cameras captured images of the military moving against the crowds and beating protestors. The images were soon sent to the outside world.

Soldiers broke into monasteries and arrested hundreds of monks. Thousands of other people were arrested. The United Nations says at least 30 people were killed in the crackdown. The military government says 10 died. The protests were the largest seen in Rangoon since the military killed hundreds of protesters calling for democracy in 1988.

Debbie Stothardt, spokeswoman for the rights group, the Alternative ASEAN Network, says last year's protests showed the bravery of the people.

"It was a very inspiring situation because most people in the international community assumed that people in Burma where too afraid or too intimidated to stand up against the regime," she said.

The world reacted with condemnation and calls for Burma to release all political prisoners. But efforts to impose tougher sanctions against the government died in the United Nations Security Council.

And while most Western countries ban trade with Burma, its giant neighbors, India and China, continue to pay the military for Burma's natural gas, timber and gems.

Burma's government says it has a "road map to democracy," including elections in 2010. But human rights groups and Burmese exiles say the election process and the new constitution are flawed because the military retains vast powers.

Carl Thayer, a security analyst and Burma expert at Australian National University, says he sees little prospect for change.

"They're pursuing their roadmap to democracy as they see it," he said. "There will be elections and they have a variety of political parties that are in a constellation backing the military regime with the regime mass organizations that will dominate the elections. But I think they can wait out international pressure."

In some ways, life has gotten harder in Burma. In May, Cyclone Nargis killed more than 130,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless. For weeks, Burma's government blocked international relief efforts. In desperation, people turned to the monasteries and private donors for shelter and food, only, in many cases, to be forced away by soldiers.

This week, the government released more than 9,000 prisoners in what it called a goodwill gesture. Among them were at least seven political prisoners, including 78-year-old U Win Tin, who had been jailed since 1989. He declares he will continue to press for democracy.

Rights advocates say Burma still holds as many as 1,900 political prisoners, an increase of more than 65 percent since July 2007.

Some experts on Burma, however, do think last year's crackdown may have fired up public anger, which ultimately could erupt.

Thayer at Australian National University says the bloody crackdown shocked him. And, he says, it may have shaken average soldiers in the devoutly Buddhist country.

"Of course I don't think the average conscript inside the Myanmar military would be happy at how the monks were treated, to see the monks defrocked, to see some killed, others in prison - must be disheartening to them," said Thayer.

Saw Steve is with the Committee for the Karen People, an advocacy group for ethnic Karen refugees from Burma. He says the crackdown hardened attitudes against the military.

"It should not be like that. For us it is very sad. It doesn't show like the way to democracy," he said. "It is not the peaceful means. It's very terrorizing so it doesn't show the way to the peace and that will create more hostility."

The military has ruled Burma for nearly 50 years, and the current government has been in power since 1988. It ignored the May 1990 election that gave a landslide victory to Aung San Suu Kyu and her National League for Democracy. Instead, it jailed, killed or forced into exile thousands of NLD supporters.