On September 24, 2007, tens of thousands of people poured into the capital of Burma joining Buddhist monks who have been protesting the military government for seven straight days.
Sporadic protesting began in August 2007, after fuel prices rose unexpectedly. The junta government has shown surprising restraint in controlling the protests, largely attributed to the fact that any violence against monks would spark a huge public outcry in a country where 90 percent of the population is Buddhist.
The last time the junta faced demonstrations of this scale was in August 1988, as thousands protested against the military dictatorship. The uprising toppled dictator Ne Win, however, a new group of generals seized power after violently ending the protests, killing thousands.
• We expect the protests to continue in the near-term, exacerbating an already tense situation in Burma.
• Although the Burmese military has shown restraint in dealing with the monks so far, we believe the government will attempt to stop the protests in the near to mid-term, most likely through hostile measures.
On August 15, 2007, the price of diesel doubled and the cost of compressed gas rose five-fold. The sharp rise in prices caused buses to stop operating throughout the capital city of Yangon.
The junta government tried to quickly put an end to protesting against the fuel price rises by arresting thirteen prominent dissidents on August 23, 2007.
However, after two weeks of sporadic marches led mostly by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), Buddhist monks joined in the movement. Soldiers fired warning shots on 500 marching monks in Pakokku, causing several hundred monks to hold government officials hostage for more than four hours on September 6, 2007.
On September 17, 2007, foreign radio stations broadcast reports that an alliance of monks will refuse to accept alms from the ruling generals, a serious threat in a devoutly Buddhist country. Authorities fired tear gas into a protest in Sittwe the next day and protests throughout Burma have continued each day since.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the NLD, greeted a crowd of several thousand monks outside her home on September 22, 2007. The Nobel peace laureate has been under house arrest for eleven of the past eighteen years. The NLD won a landslide victory in the 1990 elections but the military refused to recognize the result.
This was the first time she has been seen in public since May 2003, symbolically linking the current protests to Suu Kyi’s struggle for democracy in Burma, also known as Myanmar.
Riot police stopped protestors, who attempted to return to her home the following day. The monks did not try to press their way to the compound, deciding instead to pray briefly at the roadblock before continuing their march through the city.
Junta Faces International Pressure
Leaders from the United States, France, United Kingdom and Singapore have all urged Burma’s military leaders to show restraint in dealing with the protestors. The United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, expressed hope that Burmese rulers would, “seize this opportunity to engage without delay in dialogue with all the relevant parties to the national reconciliation process on the issues of concern to the people of Myanmar.”
China is arguably the nation with the most influence over the Burmese military, a key trading partner and diplomatic ally. Although China has called for “stability” in the country, it reaffirmed its policy of non-interference.
Originally discouraging civilians from participating in the protests, monks are now urging ordinary people to join in the peaceful struggle, “against the evil military dictatorship until its complete downfall.” The large numbers of civilians responding to the monks’ outcry mark a significant escalation of the demonstrations.
The Minister for Religion issued a warning to senior Buddhist clerics on September 24, 2007, and when protests continued the next day riot police and troops filled the center of Yangon after the cheering crowds had left for the day.
The Burma Campaign UK has reported that the junta ordered 3,000 maroon monastic robes and told soldiers to shave their heads, possibly to infiltrate the monks. In 1988, soldiers were seen stirring up the crowds, giving the military the pretext to restore order through force.
As the protests increase and threaten the power of the government, it becomes more likely the junta will use force to bring an end to the first legitimate threat to their government in almost two decades.