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The Beginning of the End for Myanmar’s Junta?

Updated On: Sep 21, 2007

Tuesday (18 September) marked the 19th anniversary of the 1988 crackdown in which the current junta took over after violently crushing vast pro-democracy demonstrations.

For almost two decades, the junta has managed to hold on to power, despite losing an election in 1990. However, for the past couple of months, the junta has been facing demonstrations over its decision to double petrol and diesel prices in August. Since the protests began a month ago, the authorities have arrested more than 150 people.

What is “worrying” the junta this time round is the involvement of monks. Monks in Myanmar have historically been at the forefront of protests- first against British colonialism and later military dictatorship. They also played a prominent part in a failed 1988 pro-democracy uprising that sought an end to military rule, imposed since 1962.

A Thai-based analyst, Win Min said the generals were cautious about a public backlash if they acted against the monks. He said the monks' recent refusal to accept alms from the military was religiously significant. “Without Buddhist merits, you are going to hell. If monks refuse your alms, it means you will suffer,”' he explained. “It's a dilemma for the junta. If they don't crack down on protests by monks, more people will join. But if they do, it could trigger massive public outrage against the Government.”

Two weeks ago, soldiers beat protesting monks with bamboo sticks in Pakokku, near central Mandalay, prompting young monks to briefly kidnap officials and held them hostage for a number of hours at a monastery. 

Mandalay is home to 300,000 monks and the Buddhist clergy have demanded a government apology over that incident. The apology never came. As a result, the monks launched a series of protests this week. On Tuesday (18 September), hundreds of defiant monks marched through Yangon, walking 10 miles through streets lined with cheering crowds. Previous pro-democracy demonstrations did not receive such support. In the city of Bago, about 40 miles away, 1,000 monks peacefully marched to the Shwemawdaw pagoda.

In the western city of Sittwe, some 5,000 monks turned out to protest Tuesday's arrests of at least three monks and some 20 demonstrators.  The military tried to break up the Tuesday protests by firing tear gas and warning shots. Elsewhere, more than 300 monks took to the streets of Yangon, drawing hundreds of people.

On Wednesday (19 September), the protests continued. But the police did not intervene though The Irrawaddy reported that the Myanmar military government has ordered a state of emergency, authorising regional and local authorities to control the demonstrations, including the use of open fire, if necessary.

The UN is monitoring the situation in Myanmar and calling for a “low-key discussion of Myanmar … at this stage”.  However, if the situation deterioriates, the UN said it would consider other options including a statement voicing the Security Council’s “concern about the situation”.  The UN Secretary-General’s special adviser on Myanmar, Mr Ibrahim Gambari is due to visit Myanmar next month.

A diplomat in Yangon told the Straits Times that the country is on a downhill trajectory and it is hard to know at what point people will say “they have nothing to lost”. But the junta also seems intent to hold to power at any cost.  (21 September 2007)

Sources:

Myanmar monks march on (21 September 2007)

Burmese junta in turmoil as monks rally support against fuel price hikes (The Australian, 20 September 2007)

Buddhist monks gather at Myanmar's Shwedagon pagoda for new protest (Associated Press, 20 September 2007)

Burmese Junta Orders State Emergency, Authorises Use of Weapons, Says Source (The Irrawaddy19 September 2007)

Buddhist monks press peaceful protests in Myanmar amid tight security (Associated Press, 19 September 2007)

Backed by Cheering Crowds, Defiant Monks Protest Burma's Junta (The Washington Post, 19 September 2007)