(by Priya Abraham, WorldMag.com) – After five weeks of demonstrations died, it was payback time in Rangoon. Military vehicles in one pre-dawn patrol warned residents over a loudspeaker: “We have photographs. We are going to make arrests!” So far, Burma’s 45-year military junta has kept its word.
This month’s pro-democracy protests are the first since Burmese challenged the junta in 1988. Adding new technology to their arsenal, the well-organized opposition broadcast their “Saffron Revolution” across the world. Video, photographs, and live web reports streamed out until the junta blocked internet and phone access.
Since then, it has been harder to glean new information from Burma. What is clear, however, is that the government’s crackdown is continuing. Vendors and traffic were back on Rangoon’s streets, but some Buddhist monks crammed the city’s main train station, apparently ordered back to their villages. U.S. embassy officials visited 10-15 monasteries and found some chillingly empty. “Where are the monks? What was happened to them?” asked Shari Villarosa, the top American diplomat in Burma, in a press interview.
Many are in detention, held in windowless conditions at Rangoon’s main technology institute. The government says only 10 people died as security forces shot, beat, and tear-gassed protesters. Other estimates are much larger: Dissident groups say 200 died and 6,000 have been detained. For the most part, human-rights monitors shied away from hard figures as they sifted through numerous reports.
Little has improved for ordinary Burmese in the last 20 years. A 500 percent hike in fuel prices sparked the latest street demonstrations. The junta has grown more insular, resorting to its old hooliganism even as the world can now watch Burma closely. Last year, reportedly on the counsel of an astrologer, the generals moved the capital from Rangoon to the remote agricultural outpost of Naypyidaw.
It was “only a matter of time” before Burmese turned restless again, said David Mathieson, a Human Rights Watch consultant. He is based in Thailand because Burma does not allow rights monitors inside the country. “They’re willing to use violence against their own people, and that’s unsustainable in the long run. They can’t keep doing this.”
While many Burmese still suffer under the junta, some have found escape and fresh hope. This summer hundreds of ethnic Karen refugees, many survivors of the 1988 crackdown, settled in the United States. Most have spent the last two decades in Thai refugee camps living in bamboo huts and cooking outdoors.
Their arrival came after an agonized wait: Since 9/11 most refugees could not enter the United States because of a clause prohibiting material help to terroristsâ€”in this case a Karen rebel group. Washington last year determined the interpretation to be too stringent for the Karen, and now thousands can settle in the United States.
Coming to America has been a leap, but many Burmese are happy for their new lives. Gretchen Schmidt, a World Relief coordinator helping to settle Karen in Illinois, said their factory job supervisors are so pleased with their hard work, they have jokingly asked for more refugees.
The Karen quickly organized families living in the same apartment building to share provisions such as dishes. Leaders devised a system in which each new immigrant family gets a meal from the last refugees who joined the community. They have also swelled a local Burmese congregation of about 10 to more than 100: About one-third of the Karen are Christians. “They’ve spent so long feeling useless that they’re happy to be [working] and providing for their families,” Schmidt told WORLD.
In the meantime, with their latest crackdown, Burma’s leaders are losing some traditional allies. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, issued an unusually sharp rebuke against Burma, one of its member states. China, one of Burma’s largest arms suppliers and investors, also surprisingly spoke out. After years of poorly working general sanctions, Washington installed targeted ones aimed particularly at the pocketbooks of Burma’s leaders and their families.
In early October, some Karen joined an anti-junta protest outside the Chinese consulate in Chicago. Watching the fresh crackdown from afar has revived painful memories of 1988, and some wish they could help their countrymen, Schmidt said. A new start in America is a godsend for the new settlers, but back home, Burmese still have to fight the old brutal ways.
Copyright ©2007 WORLD Magazine, 10/13/07 issue. Reprinted here October 9th with permission from World Magazine. Visit the website at www.WorldMag.com.
1. a) How were Burmese pro-democracy protesters able to broadcast their “Saffron Revolution” across the world?
b) Why is the current pro-democracy movement in Burma named the “Saffron Revolution?”
2. a) Define junta.
b) How has the ruling junta reacted to broadcasts of protests by the pro-democracy movement?
c) How has the ruling junta reacted to the peaceful pro-democracy protests?
3. What sparked the recent street demonstrations against the ruling junta?
4. Read about the ethnic Karen refugees from Burma (paragraphs 7-10, 12) who are now settled in the U.S. What is your reaction to this information?
5. How is the crackdown on protesters hurting the Burmese junta?
Britain conquered Burma over a period of 62 years (1824-1886) and incorporated it into its Indian Empire. Burma was administered as a province of India until 1937 when it became a separate, self-governing colony; independence from the Commonwealth was attained in 1948. The military has ruled since 1962, when the army overthrew an elected government that had been buffeted by an economic crisis and a raft of ethnic insurgencies. During the next 26 years, General Ne Win’s military rule helped impoverish what had been one of Southeast Asia’s wealthiest countries.
The present junta, led by General Than Shwe, dramatically asserted its power in 1988, when the army opened fire on peaceful, student-led, pro-democracy protesters, killing an estimated 3,000 people.
Despite multiparty legislative elections in 1990 that resulted in the main opposition party – the National League for Democracy (NLD) – winning a landslide victory, the ruling junta refused to hand over power. NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient AUNG SAN SUU KYI, has been under house arrest on and off since 1989, the latest since 2003, where she remains virtually incommunicado. In February 2006, the junta extended her detention for another year. Her supporters, as well as all those who promote democracy and improved human rights, are routinely harassed or jailed. In August 2007, Burmese citizens angry over the government’s decision to double the price of fuel, began staging peaceful protests against the high prices. Buddhist monks were also involved and have spearheaded the largest challenge to the military junta since the failed uprising in 1988. (information taken from the CIA World FactBook and FreedomHouse.org)
(To read the complete background on the repressive Burmese government, go to FreedomHouse.org.)
Follow events in Burma at news.yahoo.com/fc/World/Myanmar
For a map of Burma, go to worldatlas.com
For general information on Burma, go to the CIA World FactBook at cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/index.html