Background on the Burma Protests

The protests in Burma, led by the country’s monks, have grown to such a point that the ruling junta has threatened a crackdown, the New York Times reports:

Speaking on state television, the junta’s minister of religiousaffairs told senior Buddhist clerics to rein in the tens of thousandsof monks who have marched through several cities in recent days.

If not, said the minister, Brig. Gen. Thura Myint Maung, unspecifiedaction would be taken against the monks “according to the law.”

Let’s hope the regime does not decide to use as a model its response the last time an upwelling of anti-regime fervor took hold in Burma, in 1988. When student demonstrations on Aug. 8 of that year (8/8/88) developed into mass protests, the Burmese junta waited about about five weeks, until Sept. 18, to begin a bloody military crackdown. The current protests started a little more than a month ago.

In order to keep up the pressure on the military regime, President Bush announced more U.S. sanctions in his speech to the U.N. today. Bush has already concluded his speech as we write this blog post, but a transcript is not yet available. But the Los Angeles Times, citing White House officials, reported this morning that the new sanctions “will include efforts to limit travel and financial transactions by key Myanmar government members and their families.”

There’s no telling how all this will end. However, WPR’s Sept. 4 article by Graham Lees explained how it all got started: with an inexplicable move by the government to raise fuel prices:

A [March 2007 Asian Development] Bank report on Burma said buoyant and rising gas exports offered the military regime an opportunity to embark on structural reforms needed to create economic stability and reduce rampant inflation, believed to have been running at nearly 40 percent before the domestic fuel prices hike.

. . .

Despite Burma’s rich gas resources, which the government energy chief bragged about in Singapore, the price of compressed natural gas that fuels Rangoon’s buses increased 500 percent. Bus operators are now paying 15,000 kyats local currency ($2,330) for a tank of fuel, instead of 2,800 kyats ($440) before the sudden price increase.

The price hikes have also sparked the biggest spontaneous public street protests in Rangoon since the student-led demonstrations of 1988, which led to a military massacre of unarmed civilians similar to China’s Tiananmen Square shame, followed by the draconian suppression of all political dissent, which continues today.

Small groups of peaceful protesters against the fuel price rises have been systematically attacked by plain-clothed men, most likely members of the pro-government Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA). Some protesters were forced into vehicles and taken away.

It’s just one of many insane decisions taken by the demented cabal of generals that have run Burma since 1998. For more background on Burma’s domestic and international policy, see WPR’s relatively extensive past coverage of Burma.

And for links to news and commentary coverage of the country from other outlets, going back to July 2006, search the Media Roundup archives for “Burma” and “Myanmar.”

UPDATE: For more, see “Preventing a Massacre and Bringing Democracy to Burma: the Time is Now

More World Politics Review