Myanmar Junta Unfazed Year After Crackdown

Police in downtown Yangon, Myanmar, Sept. 27, 2007, stand guard by a barbed wire blockade erected to crack down on tens of thousands of demonstrators - led by Buddhist monks - who have been marching through the city protesting the nation's military government. (AP Photo/The Mandalay Gazette, HO)
AP/Mandalay Gazette/HO
As the crowd marching through the streets of Myanmar's biggest city swelled to 100,000, the question wasn't what did they want, but when would the government crack down.

The answer came days later, on Sept. 26, 2007, when truckloads of heavily armed soldiers and riot police flooded Yangon's streets, hurling tear gas, beating and shooting at Buddhist monks and other pro-democracy protesters. In three days of mayhem, at least 31 people were killed, according to a U.N. estimate.

A year later, Myanmar's "Saffron Revolution" - named after the color of the robes worn by the militant young monks spearheading the protests - is a bitter memory.

"I have lost hope in the future of the country. A regime that can kill monks will not give up its power easily. There could only be more bloodshed if people go out on the streets again," Maung Maung, a 52-year-old electrician, said in Yangon this week.

An explosion injured seven people near Yangon's City Hall on Thursday, indicating some remnants of the violence may remain. Riot police poured into the area where the explosion occurred and sealed it off with yellow tape, adding to the already tight security in place around the city since late August.

After putting down the biggest and most sustained demonstrations since 1988 - when a popular uprising failed in an attempt to end 26 years of army-backed rule - the military now looks set to proceed virtually unchallenged with its so-called road map to democracy.

Having pushed through a new constitution that enshrines the military's leading role in politics - engineering a 92 percent "yes" vote in a national referendum in May - the junta, formally known as the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC, is preparing to hold a general election in 2010 totally on its own terms.

Provisions of the new constitution would also bar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from holding any kind of political office in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

"It is hard to envisage the planned elections being disrupted in any significant way at all. People will largely vote as instructed, just as they agreed to hand in pre-marked voting cards to endorse the new constitution," said Monique Skidmore, a University of Canberra professor and an expert on Myanmar.

"Fear is an incredibly powerful weapon in Burma and the population knows well when the SPDC will brook no resistance."

The number of political prisoners in Myanmar has roughly doubled, to about 2,000 from 1,000 a year ago, according to the United Nations and Amnesty International. The prisoners include most of the country's smartest and most dedicated activists.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi, detained for 13 of the past 19 years, remains a lonely and isolated figure under house arrest, forced to threaten a hunger strike to get such concessions as being allowed to receive mail from her sons in England.

Her National League for Democracy party, meanwhile, ponders the unappealing choice of taking part in the 2010 election under what are certain to be onerous conditions, or boycotting the polls, leaving them even further out in the cold. The party won a 1990 election, but the military refused to let Parliament convene.

The regime has not been able to snuff out all defiance.

Win Tin, a 78-year-old stalwart of Suu Kyi's party, was unbending in his conviction after being released this week following 19 years imprisonment.

"I will have to continue the unfinished task, which is to achieve democracy in the country," he told reporters.

Those who remain behind bars are said to be equally resolute.

U Gambira, one of the most prominent activist monks arrested last year, insists he be tried under Buddhist clerical law rather than by the military authorities, according to his lawyer, Aung Thein.

Activists of the Generation 88 Students group, who organized most of the major nonviolent protests of recent years, are demanding they be tried in open court, without handcuffs and with the media present.

Last year's protests began on Aug. 19, 2007, after the government sharply raised fuel prices in what is one of Asia's poorest countries. Economic troubles underpinned the protests.

A sharp increase in poverty levels combined with a health and education system in ruins - along with the lack of any kind of welfare system - meant that spikes in commodity or fuel prices put an unbearable strain on people, said Skidmore.

"These issues combined to create a peaceful uprising of people not normally involved in pro-democracy causes," she said.

But the protests over economic conditions were faltering until the monks took the leadership and assumed a role they played in previous battles against British colonialism and military dictators.

"By 2007, a new generation of monks had come of age since the nationwide failed democracy uprising in 1988," said Skidmore. "Young, frustrated and seeing the suffering of the people on a daily basis, they were unafraid to mobilize."

At first the monks simply chanted and prayed. But as the public joined their marches, the demonstrators demanded a dialogue between the government and opposition parties and freedom for political prisoners, as well as adequate food, shelter and clothing.

When the government hesitated to confront them - aware of the taboo on attacking the revered representatives of the country's Buddhist religion - people were emboldened to come out.

The tipping point came on Sept. 24, 2007, when a stunning line of some 100,000 marchers stretching as far as the eye could see, wound its way across town, cheered on by onlookers.

A day later, a curfew was declared. Then, on Sept. 26, 2007, the guns came out.

In the following weeks, thousands of people were detained. The government continues to methodically track down and arrest dissidents. Nilar Thein, a prominent member of the 88 Generation Students group, was arrested earlier this month, as was a well-known activist monk, Ko Nge - also known as Shin Sandimar.

Leaving little to chance as the anniversary approached, the junta has tightened security in Yangon since late August.

As many as nine truckloads of riot police holding assault rifles and tear gas and carrying shields and batons cruise the streets daily, while others are stationed inside the compounds where a number of monasteries are located.

To many, the lengths to which the ruling junta would go to quash the protests were revealed when monasteries were raided in the early morning hours of Sept. 27, 2007.

"I still hear the sound of soldiers swearing and monks groaning in pain when soldiers raided the monastery and beat the monks," said Soe Myint, a resident who lives near the Ngwe Kyar Yan monastery in a northern Yangon suburb. "There is little chance for a peaceful protest to take place again this year."