At the time of writing the State Peace and Development Council, as Burma’s junta styles itself, was still sticking to its story that only 10 had died as a result of its latest assault on democracy in September. Other sources suggested a far higher figure, running into the hundreds. Whatever the actual tally, these were killings foretold.
When the trouble started I was in Bangkok. With colleagues from both the Thai and international press, I read the wires and watched the television screens with mounting apprehension. Few of us doubted where it would lead, if protesters continued to demonstrate on the streets of Rangoon, Mandalay and other Burmese cities. The regime does not brook dissent, and never has. Even so, there were flickers of hope.
Everything turned on whether the army rank-and-file would open fire on Burma’s clergy. On September 20th an astonishing thing happened. A group of monks was allowed to proceed to the gates of 54 University Avenue close by Rangoon’s Inya Lake–the compound where Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is held under house arrest.
‘The Lady’ made a brief appearance, stepping out of her dilapidated colonial villa, tears bathing her iconic features. Were the generals about to restore her liberty at last?
It was a false dawn. The barbed-wire coils in University Avenue were back in place, soon reinforced by machine gun emplacements. Senior General Than Shwe, known to fly into a rage at the mere mention of Suu Kyi’s name, had not relented. Whichever officer was in charge at University Avenue had maybe allowed himself to be persuaded by the monks, only to have his initiative quickly reversed.
There have been other reports of soldiers, especially in Mandalay, refusing orders. But the bulk of the Tatmadaw (Burmese armed forces) remained loyal to the SPDC, and carried out its dirty work during the following week. From the flashes they wore, it was clear that units hardened by decades of fierce fighting against querulous ethnic insurgents, particularly Karens and Karennis, had poured into Rangoon.
The trouble started back in August. On the 15th the regime enforced a previously unflagged hike in fuel prices, reckoned by some at 100 percent, by others at 500 percent. On the 19th small civilian protests started. By the end of the month some younger monks were joining in. The tipping point came on September 5th, when shots were fired over the heads of a body of monks in a township outside Mandalay. A handful of monks were also severely beaten. The Sangha (Order of Monks) took umbrage as a whole. Soon thousands of monks were participating in large-scale daily marches between the Shwedagon and Sule pagodas in Yangon. These processions attracted crowds of civilians.
For a while, aware that the outside world was watching through a variety of covert means, and perhaps cautioned by China, the regime showed uncharacteristic restraint. Only toward the end of September did government violence begin in earnest.
Inevitably comparisons have been made between this latest manifestation of Burmese discontent and the ‘people’s uprising’ of 1988, when several thousand were massacred, and Aung San Suu Kyi rose to prominence as the figurehead of the National League for Democracy (NLD).
Two striking differences in 2007 have been the mass involvement of monks, and the much smaller civilian turnouts. The latter is explained perhaps by the very memory of 1988. The Burmese know better than anyone what the Tatmadaw is capable of, and this must have been a deterrent.
Emphasis has also been put on the enhanced degree of media monitoring. The mobile phone, with or without a photographic component, and also use of the internet, kept newsgatherers in Thailand and elsewhere informed in a way that was literally impossible 20 years ago.
News was then fed back into Myanmar via the BBC, VOA and DVB (the Norwegian-based Democratic Voice of Burma)–‘external destructionists’, in regimespeak.
Far more so than in August 1988, this latest unrest was spontaneous. A group calling itself the 88 Generation Students were the prime movers. The NLD — generally hobbled since Suu Kyi was last detained in May 2003 — appears to have played a lesser part.
What lies ahead now is anyone’s guess. There has been talk of a general strike.
But the regime has acted promptly to detain potential leaders. My guess is that Burmese dissidents, made finally aware that non-violent opposition cannot work against determined and well-armed brute force, will increasingly turn to their own acts of force — sabotage, bombings and assassinations.
Western sanctions have failed. The way forward may be to induce change through greater economic engagement, and establishing multiple contacts at the mid and lower levels within Burmese society, even, if need be, through increased tourism.
This approach appears to be working, albeit slowly, in China and Vietnam — two other countries with poor human rights records.
At Frontline, we should particularly mourn the loss of APF’s Kenji Nagai, the journeyman Japanese photojournalist killed in Rangoon. It is in the heat of the moment that some in our profession are unlucky enough to become heroes.
An updated paperback of Justin Wintle’s biography of Aung San Suu Kyi –Perfect Hostage (published by Hutchinson in April) will be released by Arrow early next year.