The ruling military junta in Myanmar is showing signs of nervousness as the unrest of the students and monks is not only persisting, but is even showing signs of spreading across the country despite repressive measures taken by the army.
2. It was initially the students, who took to the streets against the Junta on August 19,2007, in protest against the economic hardships caused to the people by a sudden increase in fuel prices imposed by the Junta, which has doubled diesel prices and imposed a five-fold rise of compressed natural gas prices.Though economic hardships were the initial trigger for the unrest, the repressive measures subsequently taken by the Junta are turning the movement into a fresh movement for the restoration of democracy similar to what Myanmar had witnessed in 1988.
3. Initially,the number of students involved in the demonstrations was small and the Junta was confident of being able to suppress it through its civilian collaborators belonging to the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a front organisation of the intelligence agencies, without the army directly coming into a confrontation with the protesters.
4. The intelligence agencies were totally taken by surprise by the revival of a students’ movement, resembling that of 1988, which led to the exit of Gen.Ne Win. Initially, the agencies had reportedly assessed that the unrest would be confined to a small number of students in Yangon and could be easily suppressed. Their optimistic assessment proved wrong when despite large-scale preventive arrests of student and political activists, including 13 leaders associated with the 1988 movement, the student demonstrations started spreading to other cities and small towns.
5. The Junta’s nervousness increased on September 5,2007, when, to its surprise, about 300 Buddhist monks, many of them young, in the central city of Pakokku took to the streets in protest against the increase in fuel prices and in solidarity with the student protesters. For the first time since the eruption of the protests on August 19, military force was used to disperse the monks.Soldiers of the Army and the state-backed militia beat up the monks and some members of the public, who were watching the protesting monks and encouraging them. The next day, the monks, in protest against the use of force against them, held a group of 20 government officials hostage for several hours and attacked a store and a home belonging to militia leaders. The monks also started demanding a formal apology from the Government for the use of force against peaceful religious leaders.
6. Totally unnerved by the monks coming out into the streets in solidarity with the protesting students and the long-suffering common people, the Junta and the publicity organs controlled by it accused Aung San Suu Kyi, the legendary leader of the democracy movement, who is under house arrest,of instigating trouble by the students and the monks. A statement of the Junta disseminated by the State Television on September 9,2007, accused her National League for Democracy (NLD) of attacking the state through a string of protests and threatened it with unspecified action. The statement said: “The NLD took advantage of the increase of fuel prices by the state and tried to exploit the situation to mount a political attack. They send letters to international organizations, embassies and governments, requesting assistance.They cooperated with the so-called ‘88 Generation Student Group’ and exile groups to bring about demonstrations, riots and terrorist acts similar to 1988.The Government will never tolerate such malicious acts and will take effective action against those committing them.”
7. The same day, the “New Light of Myanmar”, a Government-run newspaper, accused the UK and the US of supporting the protesters. It said:“They are aiding and abetting above-ground destructive elements inside the country.They are using national traitors in exile, left-wing and right-wing political groups and insurgent remnants at the border by giving them all necessary assistance.”
8. Mr.Nyan Win, a spokesman of the NLD, has refuted the Junta’s allegations that it was behind the protests. According to the NLD, it is a spontaneous movement by the long-suffering people. The Junta has accused 13 detained dissidents, most of them leaders of the 88 Generation Student Group who spent long years in jail after the 1988 uprising, of indulging in acts of terrorism. It warned: “The terrorists will be exposed and legal action will be taken against them.”
9. Despite the repressive measures and warnings of severe action against the protesters, the students as well as the monks have kept up their protest movement. After the refusal of the Junta to apologise for the use of military force against the monks at Pakokku on September 5, large numbers of monks have been coming out into the streets in different towns to protest against the brutal suppression of a peaceful movement against economic hardships.
10. An organization called The Alliance of All Burmese Monks issued a statement on September 17,2007, calling upon all Buddhist monks in the country not to accept alms, a Buddhist tradition, from the members of the Armed Forces, the Police and other public servants co-operating with the Junta in its repressive measures. The Alliance has said that it does not look upon them as true Buddhists and hence would not accept alms from them.It has called upon all those military and police personnel and other public servants, who regard themselves as true Buddhists, not to co-operate with the Junta in its repression of the common people. In response to its call, there were demonstrations by Buddhist monks at Yangon, Chauk, Kyaukpadaung, Aunglan, Pakokku, Pegu and Sittwe on September 18.
11. The biggest protest demonstration was at Sittwe where over 2,000 persons—monks and others— marched in protest against the economic policies of the Junta and its repression of the protesters. The Police personnel deployed to prevent the demonstrations ran away. The Army had to be called in to disperse the demonstrators through the use of tear gas. About 300 monks took part in the demonstrations at Yangon, about 800 in Pakokku, about 700 in Pegu, and about 100 each in other places.
12. The students and monks have refrained from projecting their movement as in support of Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD. Instead, they are projecting it as a spontaneous movement provoked by the economic and repressive policies of the Junta.
13. While the Junta is jittery over its inability to effectively suppress the protests and is concerned over the failure of its intelligence agencies to detect the preparations for the protest movement, there is as yet no threat to its continuing hold on power. The protests are persisting and well co-ordinated, but not yet massive.In an interview to the Reuters news agency, Mr.Htay Kywe, one of the leaders of the 1988 movement, who has evaded arrest so far, said:“There is no way this will stop. As long as the public are experiencing a lack of development, economic hardship, authoritarian rule and injustice, there will be, and will always be, a situation where the public will not accept it and will fight back.Like the rising tide and waves, the military government will be hearing these voices loud and clear.”
14. The protesting students and monks are angry not only against the Junta, but also against the Chinese for continuing to support the Junta. There is also resentment over the fact that while the people of the country are suffering due to shortages and heavy prices of fuel, the Junta should be selling oil and gas to the Chinese. They have appealed to the Myanmar exiles abroad to demonstrate in front of the Chinese diplomatic missions to express their resentment over the Chinese support to the Junta.
15. There is also considerable unhappiness over the Indian co-operation with the Junta in various fields, but this unhappiness has not yet turned into anger. There is still a lot of goodwill for India. India should not lose this goodwill by a policy of supporting the Junta, right or wrong. The time has come to make it clear to the Junta that while India follows a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, it cannot remain insensitive to the feelings and sufferings of the common people of Myanmar. India should avoid any high-level official interaction with the Junta at this time. There have been reports that Shri Murli Deora, the Petroleum Minister of the Government of India, is to visit Myanmar from September 23, 2007. If true, this will be ill-advised.
(The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )