Q: What do the demonstrators want?
A: The original demands were for the fuel price to be dropped again and other measures to ease people’s economic burdens in one of Asia’s poorest nations. But they also include apologies for mistreating monks during a demonstration. More importantly, they have broadened to include the release of all political prisoners including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. There is no official leadership of the protest movement, however, so the demands are not universally recognized.
Confronted by a military junta willing to pull the trigger, Buddhist monks and democracy activists in Myanmar face long odds in trying to uproot an institution that has wielded power for 45 years.
Every sign of dissent over the decades has been crushed, including an uprising in 1988 that ended when troops gunned down thousands of peaceful demonstrators and imprisoned the survivors.
But the Iron Curtain fell a year later, showing that freedom can emerge if authoritarian regimes aren’t ruthless. Globalization brought increasing economic integration to Asia, including investment in Myanmar and other poor areas. The Internet has made it increasingly difficult for governments to control information and dissent.
Defying the corrupt, inept, brutal generals who rule them, they took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands to demand democracy. They knew they were risking a bloody crackdown, like the one that put down a huge popular revolt in 1988, killing 3,000 people or more. In 1988 Burma’s people were betrayed not just by the ruthlessness of their rulers, but also by the squabbling and opportunism of the outside world, which failed to produce a co-ordinated response and let the murderous regime get away with it. This time, soldiers are once again shooting and killing unarmed protesters (see article). Can the world avoid making the same mistake twice?
In a politically significant intervention, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who chairs the Association of South East Asian Nations that includes Myanmar, described the unfolding situation there as “very grave” indeed. Mr. Lee began consulting other ASEAN leaders, as the forum “could not credibly remain silent or uninvolved in this matter.”
The threats have failed. Tens of thousands of monks, students, democracy activists and ordinary civilians joined anti-government protests across Burma yesterday, despite the warning from the ruling junta that it is ready to “take action” to silence dissent. There were demonstrations in all the major cities. The crowds in the old capital, Rangoon, swelled to 100,000. What some are calling the “Saffron revolution”, after the colour of the robes of the Buddhist monks, seems to have acquired an impressive momentum.
President Bush today chided nations to live up to the rights and freedoms the United Nations promised six decades ago, announced new sanctions on Myanmar and denounced the governments of Belarus, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Zimbabwe as “brutal regimes.”
Appearing at the opening of the 62nd session of the General Assembly, Mr. Bush called on members of the United Nations to do more to support nascent democracies and to oppose autocratic and tyrannical governments.
The maroon-robed monks at the heart of Myanmar’s biggest pro-democracy demonstrations in 20 years are no strangers to political struggle in the mostly Buddhist nation, under military rule the past four decades.
At least 10 monasteries were raided and sacked this week and hundreds of monks arrested on apparent suspicion of spearheading marches that drew as many as 100,000 people in Yangon.
Small protests started last month against shock rises in fuel prices, a huge blow to Myanmar’s 56 million people — already some of the poorest in Asia.
But the real turning point came when soldiers fired warning shots and then roughed up monks and civilians marching in the town of Pokokku, 600 km (370 miles) north of Yangon, on September 5.