Some commentators have pointed to a recent visit by the IMF, from which came the stern advice to slash fuel subsidies in order to smooth a transition to a fully-fledged market economy. Others say that, despite the massive investment from China, India and other regional powers, the regime has spent itself dry financing the construction of its new bunker capital, Nay Pyi Daw (‘seat of kings’) and thus required its near-destitute population to make further sacrifices.
These costs were quickly passed on to all Burmese citizens through higher bus prices and grocery prices. A pre-existing price inflation rate of around 40%, with salary rises lagging far behind, meant that groceries already made up about three-quarters of the average person’s salary; the fuel price increase made the average citizen’s existence more precarious still.
Hatred of the regime pervades every walk of life in Burma, but such is the fear only rarely does it bubble to the surface. Discontent had manifested itself a number of times earlier this year, with small and solo demonstrations expressing concern at the junta’s handling of the economy. They were received with nervous admiration by onlookers. The August fuel price rises, however, triggered huge protests that swept the length and breadth of the country.
The first demonstration in Rangoon came only days after the price rise, and were organised and led by the 88 Generation group. Despite arrests of veteran activists leading the march, acts of protest continued to occur over the following days. They were small, unannounced, and focussed solely on economic hardship faced by Burmese citizens. They were also ruthlessly broken up by bands of hired thugs known as Swann Arr Shin – ‘strong people’ – organized by the junta’s ‘social organization’ the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA). Swann Arr Shin dressed up as street cleaners or mingled in with watching crowds. Machetes and sharpened bamboo sticks were wielded, but fists were the principal weapon as protesters were bundled into the back of trucks to be taken away for indefinite detention and torture.
It is likely that the people would have recalibrated their degree of tolerance to the price rises, as they have so many times in the past, and protests ended there were it not for an unexpected new element – the monks. As you might expect in a country largely cut off from the rest of the world, Burma is very traditional and venerates its Buddhist clergy (Sangha).
Apart from a few brave and outspoken monks, the sangha have largely stayed silent on political issues since the 88 uprising. Their participation in public affairs is mostly limited to providing basic education and healthcare, vital when the bulk of the government revenue goes into the pockets of senior generals and investment in the armed forces.
Indeed, it’s possible the ‘Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks’ would have gone unformed if the regime had apologised for the military firing above the heads of monks in the small dusty town of Pakkoku in early September, when monks marched and made the same demands as earlier civilian protesters.
With typical intransigence, the military ignored their requests; outrage at regime’s sacrilege was fuel on the socioeconomic fire, and a new movement was born. Monasteries around the country, especially in Rangoon, Mandalay, and Sittwe, responded to events by staging marches of their own through the city accompanied by thousands of civilians. As the protests and confidence grew, so the demands articulated by the movement became bolder and reflected the underlying political causes of the country’s malaise. These were eventually codified in the monks’ demands.
Simultaneous demonstrations in towns and cities across Burma brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets. On 22nd September, monks made their way up University Avenue to the home of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Miraculously, security forces allowed the monks to meet with Daw Suu Kyi at the compound gate.
The Burmese people live with disappointment and fear each day – for a short time, they truly believed that a new beginning was around the corner. The absence of the military was at that time attributed to the participation of the monks, who surely the regime’s enforcers wouldn’t dare touch. This had emboldened the people who responded in ever increasing numbers. A core Buddhist clergy supported by hundreds of thousands from all walks of life - students, factory workers, office workers, farmers, trishaw drivers, taxi drivers – gave a sense that this movement was untouchable.
It appeared that the monks had opened a political space which, while fear and poverty gripped the general populace – and note that this situation is not merely an unfortunate consequence of misrule and mismanagement but a considered junta policy decision designed to keep the people out of politics - may otherwise not have materialised.
Although in many cases Burma lags centuries behind its neighbours in terms of development, with even the capital city sometimes enjoying electricity only a few hours a day, many young Burmese are as tech-savvy as those in the west. Blogs, some written inside the country, websites mostly written outside, were informed and provided with photos from mobile phones (costing around $1500 for a connection, still somewhat a preserve of the elite in Burma) and digital cameras. Net surfers and TV viewers around the world, some discovering Burma for the first time, watched in amazement and sympathy as a country stood up non-violently to a brutal dictatorship.
Following a weekend of high optimism, troops began to pour into Rangoon and the crackdown began. It’s unnecessary for me to dwell on the brutality of the military’s response.
As the regime – run by decrepit old men largely ignorant of new technology – became aware that the world was witnessing the brutality of the regime, they began to target journalists and the technology used to get stories and images out. This uprising was taking place at a crucial time for the junta, just as they were putting the finishing touches to their National Convention, a process designed to cement military rule in what is to be a ‘disciplined democracy’. With the people questioning the very legitimacy of the government which hand-picked the delegates for the NC, a ballot for the new constitution was rendered unnecessary. If the junta were to have any chance of conning the international community now, the uprising had to be crushed and then explained away with the usual reference to ‘external destructive elements.’
What of the mindset of the army whilst such atrocities were performed? How could Buddhists – other religions and indeed ethnic groups other than the Burmese are hardly to be found in the military – gun down monks that they revere? Their commanders will have instructed them that these were not real monks, that they were under the influence of foreign powers, that the very existence of Myanmar was under threat. The top generals probably don’t believe this – do the soldiers? Probably not, but theirs is not to reason why, especially when refusal to obey orders brings severe beatings and sometimes execution.
Despite civilian attempts to protect the monks, thousands now languish in detention camps in the capital. Many are housed in the old university compound shut by the government in the 1990s to inhibit student’s organising. Campuses are now scattered around the city, another example of the regime’s divide and rule policy. The junta have responded to the monks’ proclamation to refuse alms from the military by disrobing the monks. If a soldier once had qualms about beating a monk, now he’s a mere civilian there can be no such compunction.
On the streets the average person asks for what many readers of this website would hate: armed intervention by the UN. Any arguments about this are purely academic – it won’t happen. The media will move onto the next big thing. Silenced and afraid, once again there is fear that Burma will be forgotten, left to rot at the hands of violent kleptocratic leaders and their partners in crime.