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Myanmar protests will end in bloodshed or a new optimism

By Charlie McDonald-Gibson, AFP, Sep 27, 2007

"The obvious way out of this is to sit down with the various elements that are involved in all this and try and reach some sort of common ground." - Mark Canning, British ambassador in Yangon

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Huge protests against Myanmar's junta will likely end in one of two ways, analysts say -- the first genuine steps toward democracy, or a bloody crackdown all too familiar on Yangon's streets.

The military, which has ruled Myanmar in some form for 45 years, is facing the biggest challenge to its supremacy since 1988, when a student uprising was brutally put down by the army, killing at least 3,000 people.

State media on Tuesday were filled with warnings by the junta of a crackdown, despite international appeals to the regime to show restraint.

Deeply-respected Buddhist monks have spearheaded the protests and numbers on the streets have snowballed to at least 100,000 as the general public join in the movement.

Restrained and peaceful, the monks clad in saffron and red robes have urged people not to chant political slogans as their processions snake through the main city Yangon, but to recite prayers of peace and compassion.

"They are learning from the 1988 uprising, when there were so many different demands," said Aung Naing Oo, a Thailand-based Myanmar expert.

The question for many analysts and diplomats is whether the junta has also learnt lessons from the 1988 massacre.

"The military has a history of cracking down on the pro-democracy movement and has had no qualms about doing that in the past," Aung Naing Oo said.

Most analysts agree that the protests show little sign of fizzling out.

What began as a movement by democracy activists against a rise in the price of fuel in the middle of last month has now mushroomed to encompass monks, nuns, artists and celebrities.

The demands have crystallized too. On Sunday, the monks' placards asked for dialogue with the junta, reconciliation and freedom for Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy icon who has spent 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest.

"[Protests] could peter out, but that's looking increasingly unlikely. You could see a sharp reaction from the government, which is more likely," said Mark Canning, the British ambassador in Yangon. "The obvious way out of this is to sit down with the various elements that are involved in all this and try and reach some sort of common ground."

Zarni, a visiting fellow at the department of international development at Britain's Oxford University and who goes by only one name, said the best case scenario is that the junta will negotiate with Aung San Suu Kyi.

Her National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory in general elections in 1990 but was not allowed to govern.

It may not result in her release, he said, but would bring the first small steps toward genuine dialogue between the junta and pro-democracy activists.

"The junta can either ask Aung San Suu Kyu or some of her senior colleagues to address the public and say we have reached a broad understanding. That would be the ideal scenario," he said, but warned that "anything in between could happen" right down to the worst case of bloodshed.

Which path the junta takes will depend on a power struggle at the top ranks of the military junta, Zarni said, where he predicts moderates and hardliners are arguing over their course of action.

One bigger factor now than two decades ago is international pressure, Aung Naing Oo said. The 1988 demonstrations were before Aung San Suu Kyi became the recognized symbol of peaceful resistance that she is today.

Myanmar's key ally China is believed to be putting pressure on the generals behind closed doors.

"We have to wait and see whether the military will use violence, or follow the peace method," Aung Naing Oo said.

Myanmar watchers warn that a people's revolution overthrowing the junta is very unlikely, not least because the military moved the capital and government buildings to the isolated central town of Naypyidaw.

But many remain optimistic for change in the country, previously known as Burma, where such street protests had been unthinkable until a month ago.

"This must be pretty emboldening for the average Burmese to see 10,000 monks walking through the streets of Mandalay or huge numbers in Yangon," said David Mathieson, Myanmar consultant for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

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