Friday, August 8, 2008

Burma's social volcano ready to erupt

Burma's social volcano ready to erupt
Commentary
Larry Jagan
Wednesday, 06 August 2008 19:07

'Monks and masses threaten military leaders'
Twenty years after the mass pro-democracy demonstrations brought Burma to a standstill for months and threatened to topple the country's one-party state, it is tempting to believe Burma's best chance for change is a thing of the past. More than a month later, in September 1988, the army moved against the protesters and crushed the democratic movement.

Since then, there seems to have been very little movement towards genuine political change. Many Burmese believed that with 20 years of no progress, Burma is destined to remain under a military dictatorship for decades to come.

But the hopes of a new era were again raised this time last year, when the country's monks joined the street protests against the military regime and spawned a new movement dubbed the Saffron Revolution. Again the military were forced to crush the movement with brutal force. And the country's activists were jailed or forced underground.

The events of last year showed that things have changed in Burma over the last 20 years, even if much of it is intangible. For years, many local Burmese businessmen have been telling me, Burma is a social volcano ready to erupt – all it needs is a spark, and that could come any time now.

No one wants a repeat of the massive social upheaval that happened in the wake of the events of August 20 years ago. Thousands of students and activists died as the military mercilessly crushed the protests. The foreign minister at the time Ohn Gyaw told me that only four people died – and they were killed in the stampede not by soldiers' guns, he insisted. Most analysts suggest some 3,000 people died in the military's mopping up operations, while the military openly admit -- albeit privately – that at least 6,000 perished.

In fact a military intelligence officer close to the former intelligence chief, who is now under house arrest, told me a few years ago that General Kin Nyunt's own assessment was that more than 10,000 people were killed. "Many bodies where quietly cremated so that there was no evidence of the massacre," he said. The same seems to have happened last September and October, although on a much smaller scale.

What most people don't understand is that the "people's movement" 20 years' ago came very close to toppling the military government. "We were on the brink of giving in to the protesters," the senior intelligence officer, Brigadier General Thein Swe – now serving 197 years in prison for corruption and treason – told a close mutual friend. "If the demonstrations had gone on for another two weeks, we would have been forced to give up and withdraw back to the barracks," he had mused.

But the protesters gave up first – leaving thousands dead – and even more forced to flee abroad. More than a quarter of a million Burmese have sought political refuge since the end of the student-led protests 20 years ago. The first batch took months to trudge through the jungles in Burma's border areas close to China, India and Thailand. They had to elude Burmese troops who would have killed them on sight, and suffered illness and disease on the way – many were decimated by diarrhoea, malaria, dengue fever and lack of food.

Many were helped in their escape by the ethnic rebel groups who were still fighting the Burmese Army – especially the Kachin, Karen, Karenni and Shan. This also helped forced the Burman opposition to recognise the legitimate concerns and claims of the ethnic groups, and helped their cause to become recognised by the democracy movement and become part of the political plans of the future.

Thousands have poignant personal stories of tragedy. All left parents and siblings behind who they have not seen for more than 20 years. Others left their young children behind with their grandparents as they would not have survived the arduous journey to freedom. These young children have grown into adults without seeing and some cases talking to their parents.

These sacrifices that have been made by the activists have left an indelible mark on both those who fled abroad as well as those who stayed behind. Burma is a fractured and crippled society. The National League for Democracy, led by the detained opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi -- though it overwhelmingly won the elections in 1990 -- has failed to provide an active and strategic leadership to the movement over the last 20 years. There is growing disenchantment with the NLD's failure to lead, which has led to many looking to the student leaders of 1988 to fill the vacuum.

After they were released from prison – in November 2004 – in the aftermath of the arrest of the then Prime Minister and intelligence chief, Khin Nyunt there was a rebirth of optimism. "At last there is a possible leader in Ko Ko Gyi," said a Burmese academic after their release from prison on condition of anonymity. "He's the most intelligent member of the opposition, apart from Aung San Suu Kyi herself" he added.

But 20 years on, these key leaders are back in prison, after a short interlude of freedom. More importantly they laid the grounds for last year's anti-inflation protests, with their letter campaign and public discussion of the country's economic woes earlier in the year. No wonder the regime has been anxious to silence them again.

The root causes of last year's protests remain – fuel and food prices continue to rise, forcing even more Burmese people below the poverty line. This is the tinderbox that could ignite into further street protests at any moment. The crucial element of last year's demonstrations, which seems to have been relatively unnoticed, was the high level of participation of young people in the protests. This generation, under 30, cannot remember August 1988, so August 2007 politicised them in the same way as their predecessors.

What has grown appreciably since August 1988, is the public anger against the military regime. Last year's Saffron Revolution has added to the process of public disenchantment and resentment. The devastation of the recent cyclone and the military's failure to react quickly has further tarnished the military regime's image of invincibility. More importantly the response of the civilian and social groups to the crisis has further strengthened their self-belief.

Burma's top military rulers fear the monks and the masses may be preparing to relaunch their campaign against the government. They have again adopted draconian measures in an effort to repress them. Although there are no signs as yet, of another pro-democracy movement taking to the streets, the military leaders are in a quandary, for they now have to seek the public's support in they seek to move from military to civilian government as outlined in the new constitution. There are to be general elections in 2010

It is in times of uncertainty – as there will be in the run up to these polls – that protest and change seem to happen in Burma. The next two years are likely to be volatile – and more protests, led by the monks and the students are almost certain.

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