A Repeat of 1988 in Myanmar?

Updated On: Sep 04, 2007

In 1988, widespread demonstrations took place after General Ne Win announced the demonetization of bank notes resulting in price hikes and economic panic.

Although the demonstrations were ultimately crushed by repressive military action, elections took place subsequently in 1990. (The results of the elections were ignored by the military government). 

Almost 20 years later, the pent-up frustration seems to have reached a head after the Myanmar military government increased fuel prices by five times without prior notification. Most people only found out about them when they were asked to pay double their usual bus fare. There has already been public dissatisfaction over rising food prices in Yangon. The price of rice has risen by nearly 10%, edible oils by 20%, meat (pork and mutton) by around 15%, garlic and eggs both by 50%, according to aid workers in Yangon who monitor the local market.

Protests appear to be spreading outside of Rangoon to other cities and taking on an increasingly political hue. Buddhist monks joined a protest in the port city of Sittwe on Tuesday (28 August). In Akyab, the capital of the southeastern state of Arakan, 200 monks took to the street to protest the fuel increases. However the government has responded by beating and detaining scores of activists. Gangs of hired thugs have also been used in Yangon to curtail unusually persistent protests.

Despite this, defiant anti-government protesters in Myanmar tried to stage a 160 kilometer (100 mile) protest march on Monday (3 September) as the country's military government wrapped up its work on guidelines for a new constitution. However, the march was stopped by the military and 3 activists arrested. The state-media New Light of Myanmar said that news of the march was fabricated by the National League for Democracy.

It is unclear as to whether these protests will have a wider political impact. Thailand's former ambassador to Burma, Asda Jayanama, told Agence France Presse, “The problem is the activists alone cannot continue this. They will be arrested and arrested until they disappear.”

It is also unclear as to the reasons for the unexpected increase in prices. One reason could be due to the need for more revenue especially with the high cost of construction of the new capital. A specialist on the Myanmar economy, Sean Turnell of Macquarie University of Australia, told the Bangkok Post, “I have long suspected that the cost of building Naypyidaw was bleeding the government's coffers dry.”

The Bangkok Post (1 September) ran an article ‘Liberalisation or Suppression?’ suggesting that the move to increase fuel prices was in line with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recommendations to the government. The IMF advised the government to increase its revenue by improving its tax collection mechanism as well as to reduce government subsidies.

Both these two recommendations have been acted on by the Myanmar government. Myanmar’s economic tsar, the number two in the military regime, Gen Maung Aye tried to implement some of the IMF's recommendations over the past two years or so. There has been an aggressive campaign to collect taxes, especially from small businesses. Earlier this year, the authorities mounted a major investigation into businesses suspected of tax evasion.

The fuel price increase came just ahead of this year's IMF/World Bank annual mission to Myanmar. The increase was also a necessary part of the government's plans to privatise the country's fuel distribution system, another plan as advocated by the IMF.

However, there are speculations that some army leaders calculatingly announced the fuel price increases in order to trigger unrest and riots to oust Senior General Than Shwe.

Meanwhile, the first step of the ‘roadmap to democracy’- the national convention which was responsible for drawing up guidelines for a new constitution - formally concluded on Monday (3 September), 14 years after starting its work. The next stage in the seven-step roadmap is supposed to be the drafting of the actual constitution, but it remains unclear who will be entrusted with the task. The document would then be submitted to a national referendum.

These protests within Myanmar have also spread elsewhere in the region. In Singapore, a group of Myanmar nationals dressed in white and started a procession from one subway station to another. The police called up 23 Myanmar nationals for further investigation and warned others against participating in an assembly without a permit. In Thailand, about 100 demonstrators gathered outside the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok to express support for the protests within Myanmar.

Ironically, there has not been any official statement from ASEAN or any of the ASEAN members despite the fact that senior Asean officials are currently meeting in Singapore to finalise the draft of the Asean Charter, a document meant to strengthen the grouping. (3 September 2007)


Singapore Immigration Calls in Burmese Demonstrators (Irrawaddy3 September 2007)

Burma’s Democracy Challenges Flickers Out (Asia Sentinel, 3 September 2007)

Myanmarprotest plans: Police issue warning (Straits Times, 2 September 2007)

Activists plan new protest march as Myanmarjunta completes charter guidelines (Associated Press, 2 September 2007)

DVB Broadcasting Station airs fabricated news titled ‘Hluttaw representatives of NLD and its members stage protest walk in Mandalay’ (New Light of Myanmar, 2 September 2007)

Liberalisation or suppression? (Bangkok Post, 1 September 2007)

Burmaprotests continue (Asia Sentinel, 30 August 2007)

How to bring an end to Burma's civil unrest (The Nation, 30 August 2007)

Politics behind Burmese protests(The Nation, 29 August 2007)

Bangkok keeps eye on trouble in Rangoon (Bangkok Post, 28 August 2007)

Activists protest outside embassy(The Nation, 28 August 2007)

Uproar in Burma, silence in Asean (The Nation, 28 August 2007)