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Saffron Revolution renewed

By Larry Jagan, The Bangkok Post, April 29, 2008

Sporadic street protests erupted in several Burmese cities over the weekend. Says a Burmese businessman: "The country is a social volcano ready to erupt."

Rangoon, Burma -- Sporadic street protests erupted in several Burmese cities over the weekend, as people prepare to go to the polls in May to vote on a new constitution. More than 50 demonstrators, led by some 20 saffron-clad monks, tried to make their way to the country's famous Shwegadon Pagoda in Rangoon on Saturday. Police prevented them for entering the temple and quickly herded them away.

The Burmese authorities have prohibited Buddhist monks from entering the historic pagoda precincts since the massive protests last September. Many other monks who planned to join the procession were detained while travelling on buses from the suburbs and other neighbouring cities to the protest.

There was another small protest at Rangoon 's Tamwe Bazaar. More than a hundred protesters also took to the streets in Sittwe, the capital of the predominantly Muslim province of Arakan in western Burma. There were also unconfirmed reports of small demonstrations in several other cities over the weekend.

Security forces are guarding most of Rangoon's monasteries, preventing monks leaving or entering the buildings.

This is the first signs of unrest since last years' Saffron Revolution was brutally suppressed. "More protests are expected in the coming days as the anger against the regime is rising," said Khin Ohnmar, a Chiang Mai-based activist with close links to the protest organisers.

The protests have been triggered in part by the government's planned referendum on May 10, and are certain to grow in the coming days before the poll.

The military regime is obviously nervous about the vote and is carefully orchestrating the referendum results. It is certain to announce that an overwhelming majority of the country has endorsed the charter, which will effectively allow the army to retain political control of the country for decades to come.

But there are growing signs that many in the electorate may in fact reject the constitution, although the authorities will undoubtedly manipulate the count.

What they cannot change, though, is the growing rage against the junta that is welling up again in all sections of Burmese society, especially among the country's clergy - who in fact have been banned from voting in the forthcoming referendum.

Burma's monks may have been crushed by brute force last September, but in the monasteries across the country there is simmering resentment and anger. One senior abbot admitted privately that next time the monks may need to take to arms if they are to overthrow the regime.

Hatred of the country's military rulers is also growing among the people on the street, increasingly burdened by soaring inflation. Even the middle classes in the main commercial cities of Mandalay, Moulmein and Rangoon are progressively more disaffected by the army's heavy-handed tactics and a collapsing economy.

Protests are ready to erupt again in the country's streets. "The country is a social volcano ready to erupt," a Burmese businessman said. "All it needs is a spark to ignite it."

But most diplomats in Rangoon are cautious about predicting fresh protests anytime soon, though they admit the causes of last year's massive monk-led demonstrations have not been addressed.

Prices are skyrocketing. Diesel and petrol costs, which sparked last year's protests, have risen again recently; cooking oil has more than doubled since the beginning of the year. Nearly 90% of Burma 's families spend more than 80% of their income on food alone. Malnutrition and poverty is growing alarmingly, as the military government spends massive amounts on arms and military hardware.

Despite this, Burma's reclusive and secretive leader Senior General Than Shwe is pressing on with his own plans to institutionalise military rule. The new constitution took the army more than 14 years to draft. Most details of the arrangements for the referendum are yet to be made known - and the actual constitution was only revealed to the public two weeks ago.

It is not being distributed but sold at 1,000 kyat, or the equivalent of a dollar, something an impoverished population, most of whom live on less than $2 a day, cannot afford. There are restrictions on public debate and criticism of the charter is banned, punishable by more than 10 years in jail. The Burmese media has been silenced; they have been ordered not to report anything about the "No" campaign.

But this has not deterred some from protesting already against the constitution, with the inevitable result that they have been locked up.

The main pro-democracy party, Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, has announced its opposition to the new constitution - partly as they were excluded from the drafting process but largely because it is undemocratic.

The president must be a military man, a quarter of the parliamentary seats will be nominated by the army chief, and the military reserves the right to oust any civilian administration it deems to have jeopardised national security.

The detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is effectively barred from political life because she was married to a foreigner, the eminent British academic and scholar of Tibet and Buddhism, Michael Aris, who died of prostate cancer in 1999.

"For the people who have the right to vote, we would like to encourage again all voters to go to the polling booths and make an 'x' ['no'] mark without fear," the NLD urged voters in statement released to the press last Friday. But they conceded the whole process was a sham.

"An intimidating atmosphere for the people is created by physically assaulting some of the members of the NLD," its statement said.

But while the odds seemed to be stacked against the pro-democracy opposition, all is not lost. Gen Than Shwe, 74, is seriously ill and losing his grip on the army. He reportedly suffers from chronic diabetes, hypertension and has massive coronary problems. He often has diabetic rages, and more recently has been showing signs of dementia and absent-mindedness, including not remembering instances where he had sacked officers, according to a Burmese medical source close to the family.

It now seems that Gen Than Shwe's days are numbered. His kidneys are failing and he has to undergo dialysis every day. He spends more than six hours a day resting, according to a military source inside the general's staff. "He is effectively dead," according to one Asian diplomat close to the old general.

To make matters worse, there are major rifts appearing within the army at the very top. Gen Than Shwe's immediate subordinate, General Maung Aye, is increasingly disaffected with his boss, feeling that he is allowing rampant corruption to bankrupt the country. He is particularly concerned about the use of an untrained and brutal paramilitary force, connected to the community-based mass organisation, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) that Gen Than Shwe personally created some 15 years ago to stir up public support for the military government.

It was thugs from this group which attacked Aung San Suu Kyi in northern Burma in May 2003, in what many believe was a concerted assassination attempt on her life. They also led the assaults on the monks last September.

The USDA, lead by hardline supporters of Gen Than Shwe, has been give responsibility for organising the May 10 referendum and will also to run the elections, which are likely to be held in two years' time.

Gen Maung Aye fears this group is going to get stronger after the referendum and effectively replace the army in running the country. He understands that the USDA's conduct and brutal tactics have tarnished the military's image. Many junior officers, the "Young Turks" as they call themselves, feel the same way. They are looking to the four top generals immediately below Gen Than Shwe to take action.

While there are no concrete signs yet of a possible "palace coup", there is already a new wave of demonstrations in the streets against the military government, which threatens to grow in the coming days before the polls open for the referendum. Most Burmese people see this as their first chance since the 1990 elections, which were overwhelmingly won by the NLD, to express their outrage at military rule.

During these uncertain times for the army, there is the possibility for things to change and to change rapidly. At the very least, there will be more protests against the government next month.

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