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Myanmar protests verge on mass movement

By Larry Jagan, Asia Times Online, Sept 13, 2007

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Popular protests have spread across Myanmar, putting the authoritarian military government's hold on power to a crucial and potentially volatile test. The demonstrations that started against the ruling junta's fuel-price policy now threaten to become a full-blown mass political movement due to the military's heavy-handed handling of protesters.

Many political activists are already starting to draw comparisons between recent events and the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 that forced longtime military leader General Ne Win to resign. Mass protests involving students, civil servants, workers and Buddhist monks then brought the country to a standstill for months until armed soldiers brutally crushed the movement and reasserted the military's hold on power through a coup.

For the first time since those tragic and momentous events, the military government faces concerted and growing public protests, which political analysts believe could easily escalate to a popular demand for the end of military rule. The State Peace and Development Council's (SPDC's) drive to introduce neo-liberal-inspired economic reforms, including last month's sudden and unexpected withdrawal of fuel subsidies, has apparently backfired badly.

Public protests are rare in Myanmar, where the regime maintains strict social controls. Military leaders apparently did not foresee or plan for the protests that have attended their shock-therapy policies. Whether the public anger snowballs into a full-blown mass movement, as happened in 1988, depends largely on how the historically heavy-handed regime responds in the weeks ahead.

The violent tactics employed by the regime to quell the protests so far, however, do not augur well for future stability. Small, peaceful protest marches have continued for weeks in Yangon, Myanmar's main commercial city and until recently the national capital.

They have since spread to several other parts of the country, including crucially the central town of Pakokku, near Mandalay, where an estimated 100 Buddhist monks recently spearheaded the unrest, including taking government officials hostage and burning their cars. The military eventually fired warning shots, and one monk was badly hurt in the melee.

The junta has long fretted about politicized monks - who command deep respect among the population and many of whom are known to sympathize with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest. Since the early 1990s, the military have effectively controlled the Buddhist governing religious bodies by retiring, replacing and relocating known-dissident abbots.

But the recent clergy-inspired violence and the military's violent response may yet prove to be a watershed moment. The monks have demanded an apology from the government for its use of force, but to date junta leaders have failed to reply. In the meantime, in an unprecedented move, police and security forces have been deployed outside the monasteries in the key Buddhist cities of Mandalay, Pakkoku and Yangon to prevent the monks from staging further protests.

Nonetheless, the monks have expressed their particular concerns about the government's reported use of armed civilian vigilante groups to counter and contain protesters. Since the protests erupted last month, the authorities have arrested hundreds of people. The junta has often used pro-government thugs to disperse the crowds violently and deter journalists from recording events.

The vigilantes are known to be part of a pro-government community group, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), which the regime often deploys to drum up popular support for the junta and is expected to morph into a full-fledged political party with the SPDC's promised transition to democracy. USDA vigilantes launched an assassination attack on Suu Kyi in May 2003, and many of her National League for Democracy supporters were killed in the violent exchange.

Now the USDA's special security force, known as the Swan Arrshin, is at the forefront of countering the current protests. "The members of this group have been especially trained in crowd control and the violent suppression of protests," a Western diplomat in Yangon told Asia Times Online. "We have had reports of its foundation to act as a security and intelligence wing since the beginning of the year."

Many former criminals recently released from prison have reportedly been recruited as vigilantes, according to diplomatic sources in Yangon. At least 600 convicted criminals were released from Yangon's notorious Insein Prison in recent months and recruited by the USDA into the Swan Arrshin, the sources say. The pro-democracy opposition in Yangon puts the figure at closer to 2,000 members.

"It is the use of these thugs which has particularly upset the Buddhist clergy. Pitting Buddhist civilians against other Buddhist civilians disturbs social harmony," said a senior Buddhist monk in the central city of Mandalay, who spoke by mobile telephone. "The government should not condone this practice, let alone promote it."

Popular protest leaders
The junta has a potentially bigger problem in dealing with the 88 Generation Student group, which was involved in organizing the original protests. The dissident group's key leaders, including internationally renowned poet Ming Ko Naing and the charismatic Ko Ko Gyi, were released from prison two years ago after spending nearly 14 years behind bars and are known to command immense respect among the local population.

The authorities detained nearly 20 of the group's members immediately after the first protest and they are being interrogated in Insein Prison. There have been unconfirmed reports that one of

the group's leaders, Kyaw Min Yu, popularly known by his English nickname Jimmy, has died in prison as a result of the injuries he sustained while being detained by armed vigilantes.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has made discreet inquiries about the prisoners, though no information is available about their treatment or condition. The regime is acutely aware of the public sympathy the group's leaders command and as an early concession released one arrested member who had suffered a broken leg upon being arrested. At the same time, the government has warned that the other detained group members face 20-year jail sentences if convicted and sentenced.

Such harsh treatment could politicize and add new fuel to the fire of the protests, some analysts predict. It's still unclear whether the protests are part of a larger political strategy launched by the dissident group. "They knew they would be detained again and could face another stiff term in prison," said one of the group's supporters. "So they had contingency plans in place for that."

The authorities have since placed all of the arrested leaders' families under strict surveillance and are searching for a key member of the group, Htay Kywe, who is in hiding. On the run, he has become the public voice of the movement through interviews given to the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma and e-mail communications with the international media.

In an e-mail sent over the weekend to foreign journalists, including Asia Times Online, he disputed the government's accusations that the 88 Student Group is using violence to try to overthrow the government, and retorted that it is the junta that is using violence as a pretext to detain the group's leaders.

"We believe that no Myanmar people ... will accept these acts of political violence by the military government," said Htay Kywe in the e-mail. "We, the 88 Generation Students, together with people including monks, students, workers and farmers, will continue our efforts to remove the military dictatorship by firmly resisting any kind of arrest and torture."

Economic squeeze
Runaway inflation, meanwhile, is causing economic chaos. An unofficial consumer price index maintained by a leading Yangon-based economic journal based on a basket of essential commodities showed a 35% spike in prices as a result of the fuel-price increase.

According to recent United Nations-conducted surveys, more than 90% of Myanmar's population spent 60-70% of their household income on food. "These price increases are likely to be the result of speculation and anticipation, rather than a real increase in costs," the top UN official in Yangon, Charles Petrie, told Asia Times Online.

A UN economist based in Yangon, requesting anonymity, said in a recent interview: "I estimate that now the vast majority of Burmese people are spending over 80% of their monthly salaries on food."

As inflation gallops, the potential for widespread unrest, not yet at the tipping point, is growing. Already more people are living without permanent shelter on Yangon's streets, many of them workers who have day jobs but cannot afford to travel from home and back, a Japanese businessman and regular visitor to Yangon recently observed.

Laborers who live in poor areas on the outskirts of Yangon - after the government razed their slums and relocated them there in 1988 in a policy designed to depopulate the national capital - are now walking to work rather than paying higher transportation costs. "Many workers are taking more than an hour and a half to walk to work," said an economist, a Myanmar national based in Yangon. "Some even spend up to three hours walking to their factories."

UN officials believe the policy will in time impact adversely on public health conditions - which because of low government spending were already abysmal. "Malnutrition will increase as a result" of the policy, said a UN official. "While people will not starve, there will be a slow increase in deaths from diseases which should not be terminal - it will especially affect children and the elderly."

The majority of people are not yet so deprived that they are willing to risk joining the protests. But tensions are bubbling away under the surface, which could be accentuated in the weeks ahead, particularly if rice prices were to surge. Heavy rains and flooding in Myanmar's rice bowl this year means yields and supply could be substantially reduced compared with recent years - providing yet another source of inflationary pressure.

"The current protests are still economic," said Khin Ohmar, a leading activist based in Thailand with close links to protest organizers. She said she believes it's only a matter of time before the protests become political. "Everyone recognizes that the root cause of the inflation is the junta's economic mismanagement. By concentrating on what really concerns people in their daily lives, people will be encouraged to participate [in the rallies], and that will eventually generate a momentum for real change - as happened in 1988."

The dramatic events of August 1988, which likewise were spurred by economic mismanagement, took months to evolve. In late 1987, the military demonetized certain denominations of the local currency, the kyat, which wiped out many people's savings overnight. The initial peaceful protest marches were suspended after the regime violently cracked down on them. Three months later, student groups initiated a fresh series of protests which by August of that year had grown into a mass movement.

Nearly 20 years later, the military's economic mismanagement and political heavy-handedness are strikingly similar.

Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British Broadcasting Corp. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.

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