The Rangoon Autumn

burma-19-ap.jpgUpdates below:

  • 9/21:   Original post, background of the protests. 
  • 9/22:  Monks  march to  Aung San Suu Syi’s home in record downpour; 10,000 protest in Mandalay.
  • 9/23:  Protests hit 8 cities; Rangoon turnout at 20,000; World leaders speak out against use of force to quell protests, but the U.N. is silent.
  • 9/24:  Rangoon protests draw 100,000; Their hold on power seriously threatened, junta generals threaten to use force; Bush  to announce new sanctions  before U.N. General Assembly; Burmese entertainers join the opposition.
  • 9/25:  New protests launched; Rising fears of a crackdown; Government declares curfew, sends troops to key locations.
  • 9/26:  5,000 monks and 5,000 students  continue to defy ban; police beat, arrest  300 monks, fire tear gas and warning shots, then fire on crowds, killing between 1 and 8.
  • 9/27:  70,000 protestors risk death to demand freedom.
  • 9/28:  Death toll rises to at least 10, possibly scores; Japanese journalist killed; bloggers and journalists smuggle out photos and video as government cuts off internet access; despite rumors of turmoil within the junta, the crackdown appears to be working.
  • 9/30:  The rebellion is crushed; probably scores dead; monk’s body seen floating in the Irrawaddy; all peaceful means of  change are exhausted.
  • 10/2:  Senior defector reports thousands of monks, students massacred; others imprisoned pending transportation to remote areas.  U.N., world do nothing.

Original Post, 21 Sep 07: 

If you remember that the bemedalled thugs who rule Burma shot down 3,000 people in the streets of Rangoon in 1988, then you understand how much courage it must require to go back into those same streets to protest what may be East Asia’s second most brutal regime.   Just as  North Korea’s mongrel ideology blends Stalin, Marx, Confucious, State Shinto, and  extreme nationalism,  Burma’s ideology is a mixture of Marxism, Buddhism, and nationalism.  Its  own version of Kim Il Sung was  the ruthless old general Ne Win, branded his local  juche as “the Burmese  Way to Socialism.”  Despite  the regime’s  nominally Marxist character,  Burma remains devoutly Buddhist, and monks are still revered and highly sought for the exhange of alms for blessings. 

That means that shooting them down is an option the regime would rather avoid.  Burma is not North Korea.  Flickers of dissent do survive, and religion competes with the state for the fidelity of the people.  In recent Burmese history, economic downturns in that disastrously mismanaged  economy have been the triggers of unrest.

The media haven’t been paying nearly enough to this story.  It started in mid-August, when the government announced drastic fuel prices increases — the price of gasoline rose 80% and the price of diesel doubled.  The protests started on August 19th, when 500 protestors marched in the streets of Rangoon.  By August 22, the protests had taken on an overtly political character, when pro-democracy activists joined the protests.  The government responded by sending its thugs into the streets to beat them; dozens have been arrested, perhaps even hundreds.  On Wednesday, the government upped the ante with tear gas and warning shots.

The monks have reacted by refusing alms from the military, the regime’s base of power.

Since the protests began a month ago, authorities have arrested more than 150 people, but Win Min, another Thai-based analyst, said the generals were cautious about stirring a public backlash if they acted against the clergy.  He said the monks’ refusal to accept alms from the military was religiously significant. 

“Without Buddhist merits, you are going to hell. If monks refuse your alms, it means you will suffer,” he said, adding those whose alms are rejected lose all chance of attaining nirvana, a state of enlightenment.  “It’s a dilemma for the junta. If they don’t crack down on protests by monks, more people will join protests. But if they do, it could trigger massive public outrage against the government,” he said.  [AFP, Shino Yuasa]

President Bush and the European Commission have denounced the crackdown.  Ban Ki Moon, who has  proven himself to be  every bit as worthless as I had predicted, has had so little to say that Laura Bush, in unusually strong language,  prodded him to grow a pair and speak out.   The Burmese diaspora has been active, however.  It has protested the crackdown at Burma’s embassies in Bangkok, Manila, Auckland, and even Seoul; and the regime accuses it of orchestrating the protests.  You can see images of the protests at those places, and in Rangoon, at this slide show.  A sample; all photos from Reuters:

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Yet in Rangoon and elsewhere, the protests have not just persisted, they have grown.  The city of Pakkoku has been another hot spot of dissent, and there have also been large protests in Mandalay.  Today, the protests are still small — much too small to topple the regime — but they are growing.  The latest reports say that 1,500 monks marched in Rangoon, the largest number reported so far.  In some cases, up to 2,000 onlookers came out to support the monks. 

burma-protest-map-afp.jpg[23  Sep 07:  Here’s a graphic, via APF, of the cities and towns where protests  have been reported.]

No one yet knows whether the protests will continue to grow or  whether they will lose steam.  No doubt, the regime would prefer to dispose of the  leaders quietly without  spilling more blood on the streets.  But the fact that  it’s fully capable of doing so means that we should be watching more carefully, in the hope that we can deter the regime’s brutality just a bit more.

Update 1, 22 Sep 07:

Everyone knows how gasoline can spark a conflagration.  What began as a small disturbance by citizens angry over the price of  fuel has become a  swelling nationwide  democratization movement.  It is now too large to crush quietly; indeed, its momentum seems to be gathering rapidly.  The regime is now deciding  whether it’s once again prepared to shoot down thousands of its own people, including Buddhist monks, to keep itself in power.  It may come to that, if the soldiers will fire.

In the city of Mandalay,  “witnesses” claimed that a  protest drew ten thousand people, including  4,000 monks.  If true, that would be the biggest anti-government protest  since 1988.  In Rangoon, a thousand monks and 800 supporters marched in the rain

[23 Sep 07:  Actually, a  downpour of 11.54 inches, a 39-year record.   This AP photograph shows monks sloshing through flooded streets:]

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The monks  came to the police roadblock on University Avenue, the one that keeps the home of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi sequestered.  Then, something strange happened:

Police unexpectedly let more than 500 monks through at a roadblock on University Avenue where Suu Kyi’s house is located. The monks stopped briefly in front of Suu Kyi’s house and said some prayers before leaving at the other end of the street, said a resident, who asked not to be named for fear of being harassed by the authorities.

“Today is extraordinary. We walked past lay disciple Daw Aung San Suu Kyi‘s house today. We are pleased and glad to see her looking fit and well,” a 45-year-old monk told about 200 people at Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon. “Daw” is an honorific used in referring to older women.

“She came out to the gate and paid obeisance to us and later waved at the crowd when we left,” said the monk, who did not give his name.

Suu Kyi, 62, has been under detention for more than 11 of the last 18 years, and continuously since May 2003. She is the leader of the National League for Democracy party, which won a 1990 general election but was not allowed to take power by the military. 

That small victory will have immense symbolic significance and will greatly encourage more wavering citizens to join the protests in the hope of glimpsing the woman they voted for.  Why that strategic barricade  unexpectedly opened is a very interesting question.  When I spoke of the  Ceaucescu Moment, I spoke of how the currents and switches of history can run through the  neurons of  one mind, in one man whose destiny is to be forgotten. 

Worse yet for the regime, the monks have banded together within a nationwide organization with an overtly anti-regime political agenda:

Meanwhile, a monks’ organization for the first time urged the public to join in protesting “evil military despotism” in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

“In order to banish the common enemy evil regime from Burmese soil forever, united masses of people need to join hands with the united clergy forces,” the All Burma Monks Alliance said in a statement received Saturday by The Associated Press.  Little is known of the group or its membership, but its communiques have spread widely by word of mouth and through opposition media in exile….

“We pronounce the evil military despotism, which is impoverishing and pauperizing our people of all walks including the clergy, as the common enemy of all our citizens,” the statement said.  [AP]

Reader and Burma-watcher “Editor” notes that some of the disturbances in the city of Akyab have taken on an ethnic character, but the inspiration for these large protests  is clearly something that transcends ethnicity.

The collapse of the Burmese regime would a great thing for the people of Burma, and it would also be more than that.  Burma has made itself a strategic ally of China in the Indian Ocean and is allowing China to build naval bases along its coast to control shipping lanes that feed oil from the Middle East to the rest of East Asia.   The Burmese regime, which is  expanding its military at an alarming rate despite the absence of external threats,  is a suspected customer for North Korean arms sales.  That relationship may even  extend to the proliferation of a nuclear reactor.  U.N. Security Resolution 1718 prohibits North Korea from trafficking in major weapons systems or WMD components.

Burma is also completely inhospitable to North Korean refugees, who travel all the way through China clandestinely to escape the oppression in their homeland.  For now, when Burma catches a North Korean, it sends him back to Kim Jong Il’s death camps by way of China.  If Burma becomes a new station on the underground railroad, the overthrow of the Burmese regime could have a  significant ripple effect in Pyongyang and would greatly weaken China’s influence in Southeast Asia.

Update 2, 23 Sep 07:

Led by Buddhist monks, some 20,000 people protested against the junta on Sunday and shouted their support for Suu Kyi, who made her first public appearance in four years on Saturday when a crowd of monks and sympathizers was permitted to pass her house.

On Sunday, a small crowd of about 400 — about half of them monks — split off from the main demonstration and tried to approach Suu Kyi’s home again but abandoned the attempt after their path was blocked by riot police and barbed wire barricades.  The monks carried carried a large yellow banner that read: “Love and kindness must win over everything.”  [AP]

As I had suggested above, allowing the protestors to get through to Aung San Suu Kyi has charged the protests with a burst of fresh energy.  Via The Irrawaddy, here’s a photograph of that moment, apparently taken by a Reuters stringer:

                               burma-irrawaddy.JPG

This time, the police made sure it didn’t happen again.  

Today’s is a very large crowd for a regime that  repressive, although it appears that the 20,000 estimate may be an aggregate of multiple protests.   Even so, these protests  are now a real threat to the regime’s hold on power, perhaps greater than in 1988 in one important way.  The Burmese are an extremely spiritual, even superstitious people (numerology, for example, holds great sway there).  It would be  very difficult for soldiers to shoot at monks and nuns.

Here are some new AP photos.  Bonus points for spotting the ethnic anomaly!

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                            burma-13-ap.jpg                 burma-11-ap.jpg    

                            burma-12-ap.jpg                   burma-10-ap.jpg

I admit it.  I’m envious of anyone who witnesses history up close and joins it.  Wondering  if this person could have an English language  blog, I googled around, but in vain.

The Washington Post adds to the growing ranks of those who wonder what rock Ban “Slippery Eel” Ki Moon has slithered under to hide from this controversy.   The man must be either a  timid  invertebrate (yes)  or a Chinese puppet (ok, both).  It’s not fanciful to think  that a nation rising to superpower status and which has already bought  both Clintons could buy the U.N.   A  bloodthirsty Arab  despot could do that much.  The Post puts it more diplomatically than I would:

The global response thus far has been lackadaisical. The U.N. Security Council held a briefing Thursday, but the U.S. representative emerged with no message of particular urgency. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s special envoy has yet to announce a date to visit Burma. Some talk about the need for more studies of the humanitarian situation inside Burma — as if the humanitarian disaster, and even more its cause in political misrule, were not already well known.

What needs to be done is clear. The regime must release all political prisoners, starting with Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, so that a negotiation toward democracy can begin. President Bush, who has spoken eloquently of Burma’s struggle for freedom, needs to engage in strenuous diplomacy — above all with China — to make clear that this is a U.S. priority. And China, which has more influence in Burma than any other country has, needs to decide whether it wants to host the 2008 Olympics as the enabler of one of the world’s nastiest regimes or as a peacemaker.  [WaPo editorial]

Not that the Burmese people are foolish enough to  hold up the U.N. as their beacon of liberty.  The latest protests  made sure to pass the U.S. Embassy, which makes perfect sense; after all, the  Burmese aren’t a free and prosperous  people we made free and prosperous.  It’s enough to make you think  that the key to being loved is spreading oppression and  poverty.  I say it’s worth an experiment and propose we start with Belgium. 

For more information about the Rangoon Autumn,  the Gateway Pundit is also following this story closely; thanks for the link, Jim.   The excellent  Irrawaddy has more coverage and some superb protest photographs. 

Update 3, 24 Sep 07

The number of marchers has now swollen to as high as  100,000:

From the front of the march, witnesses could see a one-mile stretch of eight-lane road was filled with people.

Some participants said there were several hundred thousand marchers in their ranks, but an international aid agency official with employees monitoring the crowd estimated said the size was well over 50,000 and approaching 100,000.  [AP]

The odds have now shifted.   People aren’t afraid anymore; they’re coming out into the streets to join the monks.  Indeed, these marches may now be even larger than those in 1988.  The numbers will probably continue to grow until the streets are paralyzed and the regime’s power structure fractures. 

The only alternative now is force, and the surprising restraint on this is China.  In the year before it hosts the Olympics,  China is already under extreme pressure over its support for the world’s most loathesome regimes.  As Burma’s primary protector and benefactor, it knows that it will be blamed if there’s another massacre.  In fact, China probably wouldn’t otherwise case about a slaughter in Burma and probably wouldn’t punish the generals for committing one.  Burma’s generals may count on that.  But a second massacre directed against Buddhist monks and nuns would result in  intense economic and political pressure on the regime.

Update 4, 24 Sep 07:  More details on the latest protests: 

More than 100,000 people flooded the streets of Myanmar’s biggest city Monday, joining Buddhist monks in the strongest show of dissent against the ruling generals in nearly two decades.  Two major marches snaked their way through the nation’s commercial capital led by robed monks chanting prayers of peace and compassion, witnesses said.  Some of the people marched through the rain under a banner reading: “This is a peaceful mass movement.” Others had tears in their eyes.  The protests lasted nearly five hours, ending with prayers at pagodas before the crowds returned to their homes. [AFP]

Once again, there were protests in other cities, too, including Mandalay, Sittwe, and Pakokku.  More countries and institutions are calling on the generals not to use force. 

“We are consulting with allies and friends in the regions on ways to encourage dialogue between the regime and those seeking freedom,” said US national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe.  Germany and France added their voices to the chorus, with the foreign ministry in Paris warning that the junta would be held accountable if there were any harsh crackdowns on the streets of major cities.  Closer to home, Malaysian lawmakers urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to use its influence to push Myanmar, itself a member of the regional bloc, to reform.

The spell of terror is broken.  Even prominent personalities who could not hope to remain anonymous are joining the movement. 

Two of Myanmar’s most famous actors, comedian Zaganar and movie heart-throb Kyaw Thu, came to Shwedagon earlier to bring food and water to the monks, who have been protesting every day for nearly a week.

The questions of the hour:  Will the generals order the soldiers to fire?  Will the soldiers obey?  If they do, what will be the reaction?  This movement  has too much inertia to  expire quietly.  The government won’t survive unless it uses force, but using force against monks and nuns would make the regime a domestic and international pariah. 

The BBC has video here (ht:  Gateway Pundit).

Update 5, 24 Sep 07:  Here are the latest images, from the AP:       

                            burma-16-ap.jpg      burma-17-ap.jpg     burma-18-ap.jpg     burma-19-ap.jpg

As I had feared, it looks like the regime is considering the use of force.  Tear gas and billy clubs can’t stop 100,000 people, and we know how things ended last time.  So threats like this have to put a dreadful clench in your gut:

burma-20-ap.jpgHours after the protest ended peacefully, Myanmar‘s military government broadcast an ominous warning, telling senior Buddhist clerics that unless they restrained their juniors, the government would take action on its own against those it said were instigated by the regime’s domestic and foreign enemies….

[A]  state television broadcast on Monday night showed of Brig. Gen. Thura Myint Maung, the religious affairs minister, meeting with senior monks at Yangon‘s Kaba Aye Pagoda.

In the broadcast, he said the protesting monks represented just 2 percent of the country’s total, but were instigated to cause trouble by the opposition National League for Democracy party, the 88 Generation Students activist group, and agitators from the West, including foreign media.

But the statement explicitly linked the protesting monks to groups the government had long treated as enemies, subject to arbitrary detention.  [AP]

If the protestors get 400,000 or 500,000 people onto the streets, I don’t know how the government could ever  stop them.  Then, even a rumor of gunfire anywhere could lead to the spontaneous sacking  and burning  of government buildings elsewhere.  Certainly not all of the forces charged with protecting every installation in Rangoon would  fire on  a crowd filled with monks, even with orders to do so. 

What makes this situation so unpredictable is that Burma’s generals have a tendency to make decisions based on the advice of astrologers.  You may have heard the one about moving the capital  from Rangoon to an empty, off-limits  spot in the jungle near Mandalay.  But that’s my best guess at the moment, of three most likely outcomes: 

  1. Most likely (40-60):   The regime will give orders to shoot/tear gas/beat/round up the crowds, but obedience  is spotty, and a  severe backlash infuriates the crowds and splits the military.  The regime meets a bloody end.
  2. Next-most-likely (30-70):  They start shooting now and terror is restored, though it may already be too late. 
  3. Next-most-likely (30-70):  Protest attendance crosses the magic number of 500,000 without significant bloodshed.  The nastiest generals and their  families  take a midnight flight to Beijing, leaving power in the hands of some “Big Minh” caretaker figure, who will negotiate and orderly transition.  If only…

And even then, the odds are probably 1 in 3 that the remaining regime figures manage to reassert control, at least for a few years.  Joy and hope don’t last long.  The period following a democratic revolution is always chaotic, and people who are used to being handed even meager provisions find eating them a hard habit to break.   Foreign investment doesn’t revive economies overnight.   New democratic governments are  vulnerable in that period before it does.

More at Gateway Pundit.

Update 6, 24 Sep 07:  President Bush will address the U.N. General Assembly and announce new sanctions

Beyond fresh U.S. sanctions, White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley said Bush “is going to announce that there will a visa ban to key individuals associated with the negative activities of the regime, including their families.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States would step up pressure for action on Myanmar by the U.N. Security Council to support the demonstrators. “The international community’s got to stand up much more than it has,” Rice told Reuters. “What the Burmese junta is doing is just a reminder of how really brutal this regime is.”

Not that I’m complaining about this — it’s a strong show of support at the critical hour —  but if it were me, I’d theaten to drop the hammer and cut off the regime’s access to the international financial system … if  it uses force.  I would also provide weapons and training to deserving Burmese resistance groups  if peaceful methods prove futile, and I’d make that a matter of public record.   

Yet as the signs point toward a crackdown, the protests’ momentum still grows.  You can see it in the monks’ expanding list of demands:

“There’s no prospect now of the monks just deciding to abandon this. They are getting braver every day and their demands are getting greater every day, and it’s much more overtly political,” a Yangon-based diplomat said. “It’s now about Aung San Suu Kyi, it’s about reform,” the diplomat said. “The monks have got numbers and, if not immunity, then certainly it’s much more difficult for the government to crack down on them than ordinary civilians.”  [Reuters]

You can also see it in the continuing  defection of popular culture from the regime to the opposition:

The country’s biggest stars of the stage, screen and music, including Tun Eindra Bo — Myanmar’s equivalent of Angelina Jolie — have formed a “Sangkha Support Committee” and pledged to provide the monks with whatever assistance they need.  [Reuters]

Resist the temptation to compare Burmese entertainers to Sean Penn or any other member of the Film Actors’ Guild.  Burmese entertainers who express their views demonstrate actual courage.  They know that if the protest movement fails, their best case scenario is never to  work again.

Update 7, 25 Sep 07:  More protests today:

The monks, cheered on by supporters, marched out for an eighth day of peaceful protest from Yangon‘s soaring Shwedagon Pagoda, while some 700 others staged a similar show of defiance in the country’s second largest city of Mandalay.

“The protest is not merely for the well being of people but also for monks struggling for democracy and for people to have an opportunity to determine their own future,” one monk told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity fearing reprisals from officials. “People do not tolerate the military government any longer.”

The demonstrations came despite orders to the Buddhist clergy to halt all political activity and return to their monasteries, and as pro-junta supporters in pickup trucks cruised Yangon warning that large crowds were illegal.  [AP]

No crowd estimates were available for Rangoon, although the  Mandalay crowds seem to have shrunken from two days ago.  Rumors of a crackdown may have kept some people home.  Behind the scenes, Army troops were assembling in neighborhoods from which they could be called in quickly.   

You can see this apprehension at this BBC story, which includes a comment page for Burmese. 

Over at The Irrawaddy, there are several videos of yesterday’s large demonstrations.

Update 8, 25 Sep 07:

Fear appears to be gaining the upper hand again:

Myanmar’s military leaders imposed a nighttime curfew and banned gatherings of more than five people Tuesday after 35,000 Buddhist monks and their supporters defied the junta’s warnings and staged another day of anti-government protests….  [S]oldiers in full battle gear were deployed Tuesday in the country’s largest city, setting the stage for a showdown with a determined pro-democracy protest movement….

Authorities announced the ban on gatherings and a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew through loudspeakers on vehicles cruising the streets of Yangon, the country’s biggest city, and its second city, Mandalay. The announcement said the measures would be in effect for 60 days.

Earlier Tuesday, the army began deploying troops in the heart of Yangon after tens of thousands of people led by barefoot monks in maroon robes defied orders to stay off the streets and marched for the eighth straight day against the junta.  Troops were also seen gathering at a military center in Mandalay and military trucks rumbled through the streets of both cities late into the night, witnesses said.  [AP]  

All is not lost.  Although the numbers are smaller, these are the hard-core believers among the monks, and they’ve just defied that curfew for the first day.   They know that the government doesn’t want to do them harm before the eyes of the world.  A who’s who of world leaders and human rights groups have spoken up.  With the  predictable  exceptions of the U.N., the Russians, and the Chinese, everyone you expect to speak up has.  Today at the U.N., President Bush was talking about Burma:

President Bush announced new U.S. sanctions against Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, accusing the military dictatorship of imposing “a 19-year reign of fear” that denies basic freedoms of speech, assembly and worship. “Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma,” Bush said in an address to the U.N. General Assembly in New York.  Bush said the U.S. would tighten economic sanctions on leaders of the regime and their financial backers, and impose an expanded visa ban on those responsible for human rights violations and their families.

China is under intense pressure, and is making noises like it’s putting pressure on the generals, but those noises merit a skeptical hearing.  Much will depend on what happens tomorrow … maybe everything.  If the monks  succeed in defying the regime for another day, the rule of fear will suffer another great setback.  If the regime cracks down — an option that’s clearly under consideration — I’m guessing the civilians would be enraged, but  are not quite sufficiently emboldened to risk it all.  Burma’s fate is in the balance.  The obedience of the Army and the courage of the monks form the fulcrum.

More here.

Update 9, 26 Sep 07:   The number of protestors declined for a second consecutive day, but there were also signs that the junta’s heavy-handed tactices were inspiring a backlash:

Security forces fired warning shots and tear gas canisters while hauling Buddhist monks away in trucks Wednesday as they tried to stop anti-government demonstrations in defiance of a ban on assembly.

About 300 monks and activists were arrested across Yangon, according to an exile dissident group, and reporters saw a number of monks — who are highly revered in Myanmar — being dragged into trucks. […]

A march toward the center of Yangon followed a tense confrontation at the city’s famed Shwedagon Pagoda between the protesters and riot police who fired warning shots into the air, beat some monks and dragged others away into waiting trucks. […]

On Wednesday, about 5,000 monks and 5,000 students along with members of the party headed by detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi set off from Shwedagon to the Sule Pagoda in the heart of Myanmar’s largest city but were blocked by military trucks along the route.  Other protesters at the Sule Pagoda were confronted by warning shots.

Yet some of the monks could not be moved even by this: 

About 100 monks stayed behind at the eastern gate of the Shwedagon, refusing to obey orders to disperse after riot police there failed to dislodge them despite employing tear gas, batons and warning shots.

And there are the first signs of a reaction, as “[w]itnesses said an angry mob at the pagoda burned two police motorcycles.” 

The Army is employing similar tactics in Mandalay, and presumably other cities.  The authorities are also rounding up celebrity dissidents:

A comedian famed for his anti-government jibes became the first well-known activist rounded up after the curfew was imposed.  Zarganar, who uses only one name, was taken away from his home by authorities shortly after midnight, with family members saying authorities told them the 45-year-old had been “called in for temporary questioning.”

Zarganar, along with actor Kyaw Thu and poet Aung Way, led a committee that provided food and other necessities to the Buddhist monks who have spearheaded the protests. He earlier had been imprisoned twice and his comedy routines were banned for their satirical jokes about the regime.  The fates of the actor and poet were not immediately known.   [AP]

It seems that people are balanced on the edge between fear and anger.  For now, fear is winning. 

Update 10, 27 Sep 07:  I came home late yesterday after an exhausting day, and when I read that the soldiers had fired on the crowds and killed somewhere between one and eight people,  I didn’t have it in me to write about  it. 

Myanmar security forces opened fire on Buddhist monks and other pro-democracy demonstrators Wednesday for the first time in a month of anti-government protests, killing at least one man and wounding others in chaotic confrontations across Yangon.  Dramatic images of the protests, many transmitted from the secretive Southeast Asian nation by dissidents using cell phones and the Internet, riveted world attention on the escalating faceoff between the military regime and its opponents.

Clouds of tear gas and smoke from fires hung over streets, and defiant protesters and even bystanders pelted police with bottles and rocks in some places. Onlookers helped monks escape arrest by bundling them into taxis and other vehicles and shouting “Go, go, go, run!”  The government said one man was killed when police opened fire during the ninth consecutive day of demonstrations, but dissidents outside Myanmar reported receiving news of up to eight deaths.  Some reports said the dead included monks, who are widely revered in Myanmar, and the emergence of such martyr figures could stoke public anger against the regime and escalate the violence.  [AP]  

Yet the people fight on, though clouds of tear gas and through gunfire. 

On a broad avenue near the temple, hundreds of people sat facing a row of soldiers, calling out to them: “The people’s armed forces, our armed forces!” and, “The armed forces should not kill their own people!”

Tens of thousands of people were reported to be demonstrating in the streets of Mandalay, the country’s second-largest city.  [NYT]

And today, the backlash against the slaughter is materializing.  The number of protestors on the street — 70,000 — is the second-largest of the month, second only to Monday’s gathering of 100,000.  That’s an amazing figure when you see the risks.  The advantage has shifted back to the people.

Soldiers fired warning shots Thursday above an estimated crowd of 70,000 anti-government demonstrators defying a crackdown that has drawn international appeals for restraint by Myanmar’s ruling junta.  Some protesters shouted “Give us freedom, give us freedom!” at the soldiers.

Witnesses said at least one man had been shot, though the weapons fire did not appear to be aimed directly at the crowd that had gathered at Sule Pagoda.  The demonstration followed early morning raids on Buddhist monasteries during which soldiers reportedly beat up monks and arrested more than 100.  [AP]  

People feel safer in big crowds, and 70,000 is probably an aggregate of many large crowds.  This may draw more wavering dissidents and double-thinkers out to the streets.  People will sense that this is their only chance for a better life.  Unless the government is prepared to accelerate the use of force further, the protests will grow.  Any use of force that falls short of complete ruthlessness will probably just fuel the backlash.

The Burmese government must have outsourced  its spokesmanship to  North Korea’s  Rodong Sinmun:

“Saboteurs from inside and outside the nation and some foreign radio stations, who are jealous of national peace and development, have been making instigative acts through lies to cause internal instability and civil commotion,” The New Light of Myanmar, which serves as a mouthpiece for the military government said Thursday.

In addition to hundreds of monks, the regime is also arresting what opposition leaders still remain more-or-less free.  Even Aung San Suu Kyi has reportedly been moved from house arrest to prison.

For whatever it’s worth, the world is reacting with outrage (Condi Rice used the  word “outrageous“).  Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement supporting the protestors, but  nothing from Harry Reid so far.  The EU and the United States actually released a joint statement expressing solidarity with the Burmese people and prodding the U.N. to actually do something (here’s the full statement).  Is it fair to say that the U.N. has ceased to be an effective force for human rights when even the European Union is telling you to grow a spine?   But besides a meek statement from Ban Ki Moon  urging the generals “to exercise utmost restraint,” the U.N. has done nothing, and probably won’t do much of anything until it’s too late.  China, which is probably responsible for the U.N. inaction,  is feeling growing pressure, too.

China must use its “special relationship” with the junta to arrange the release of Ms. Suu Kyi and hundreds–if not thousands–of other political prisoners. Once this is achieved, world leaders should join President Bush in calling for an end to military rule and the peaceful transfer of power that should have taken place in 1990.  We are all painfully aware of the carnage in Darfur…. That awareness has lead to highly effective campaigns to divest from the Chinese oil giant, PetroChina, that does business with Khartoum. There have also been repeated calls to not support the “Genocide Olympics” to be held in Beijing next August.   [WSJ, Jody Williams]

The EU may also be contemplating new sanctions.     

Update 11,  28 Sep 07:  This will have to be an abbreviated post.  I’ll give you my general take and send you elsewhere for details.  You can’t fault the courage of the Burmese people.  The Army is on the streets, and enough of the troops are obeying orders to fire, beat people to death, arrest monks, and ransack monasteries that the monks no longer appear to make up the larger portion of the demonstrators; now, most are ordinary angry citizens.  Protest numbers and momentum are now harder to measure, as the large crowds have now become smaller, more widely scattered ones.  AFP thinks there were 100,000 people on the streets yesterday.  If so, that’s astounding. 

Among the dead:  a Japanese journalist.

There are tantalizing but unconfirmed rumors that the regime is fractured and that a key general has been sidelined.  Clearly, we have no way of knowing if there’s any truth to this.  I have my doubts.

Overall, however, it appears that the crackdown is reducing the number of people on the streets.   My guess is that the regime will try to do this in two stages:  first, get the monks out of the picture; then, the real shooting will start. 

The latest:  the soldiers have barricades the streets and  occupied monasteries.  They’re now battling smaller crowds in the streets.  The regime is cutting off Internet access.  Diplomats are hearing rumors that scores have been killed.  A U.N. envoy should be arriving about now, for whatever that’s worth [AP].  China has blocked the closest thing that exists to effective U.N. action [NYT].

Burmese blogs are revealing the junta’s lies for what they are [NYT], but the regime is succeeding at cutting the links between its people and the outside world [NYT] [Canadian Press].

There’s much  international condemnation, including surprisingly strong words from ASEAN, and predictable obstructionism from Russia and China.  It’s doubtful that mere words will mean anything to the generals.  [AP]

Burmese blogs and dissident sites:  The Irrawaddy; Zin Media; Mizzima News; Facebook; The Guardian; Ko Htike; Democratic Voice of Burma; Global Voices.

Flickr Photo blogs:  Naingankyatha; Soulspiirit; racoles; all via Webs@Work.

Photo galleries:      AFP; BBC; More BBC.

Video:  BBC; CNN.

Update 12, 30 Sept 07:   It’s over.  The tyrants have won.  The rebellion was effectively  crushed by Saturday, Rangoon time.  Yesterday, with the  blood of the Burmese people washed safely  into the Irrawaddy by fire trucks that followed the soldiers, a U.N. envoy landed to make a farcical display of concern and hold a tightly controlled, tortuous meeting with the imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi.  Twenty thousand armed troops filled the streets of Rangoon.  We have no idea how many have died.

The government says 10 people were killed in last week’s violence but independent sources say the number is far higher.  Truckloads of armed soldiers on Sunday patrolled downtown Yangon near recent protest sites and along the city’s major streets. A nearby public market and a Catholic church were also teeming with soldiers.

The atmosphere in the city was intimidating but not always menacing. One witness said soldiers sat inside trucks and on sidewalks chatting, munched snacks or walked around looking bored.  Still, a video shot Sunday by a dissident group, the Democratic Voice of Burma, showed a monk, covered in bruises, floating face down in a Yangon river. It was not clear how long the body had been there.   [AP]

Today, the regime’s police are  hunting down  every monk, blogger, actor, and citizen who dared demand freedom or speak the truth.  With the Internet connections cut, the generals know we’ll never hear the cries of their tortured victims. The world has failed Burma; its protests have been muted by the regime’s sponsors in Beijing, who then shrug their shoulders and tell us they can do nothing.  And then send more ammunition.

This is how our world will be as long as a  monopoly on the  supply of ammunition  means membership in good standing in the General Assembly, membership in the General Assembly means membership in the civilized world and the global economy, and the global economy is a place where  that monopoly can be bought for  the sweat and blood of a people.  Welcome to Ban Ki Moon’s world,  brought to you by  Hu Jintao.

The world’s most compassionate people —  it is an unhappy accident  that they are  often some of its least clear-headed — wring their hands for lack of “effective” options.   But the removal of  every peaceful means of ending Burma’s slavery does have the effect of clarifying what the answer must be.   It will not come from  any body  where China holds a veto.  Change will only come to Burma when the people have the means to resist.  Their courage and our admiration are not enough.  But their courage and our weapons are. 

myanmar0110_468x361.jpgUpdate 13, 2 Oct 07:   The news comes in two flavors:  depressing and  maddening.  Take your pick.

Depressing:   One of the generals  defects and tells of the wholesale massacre that’s going on now, as we do nothing.

In Rangoon, despite agreeing to see Gambari, the generals continued posting troops and police across the city and dispatching pro-junta gangs to raid homes in search of monks and dissidents on the run.  “They are going from apartment to apartment, shaking things inside, threatening the people. You have a climate of terror all over the city,” a Bangkok-based Myanmar expert said.  US charge d’affaires Shari Villarosa said arrests continued unabated.

[….]  

[A]s attempts at talks continue, it was revealed that thousands of monks detained in Burma’s biggest city will be sent to prisons in the far north.  About 4,000 monks have been rounded up in the past week as the military government has tried to stamp out pro-democracy protests.  They are being held at a disused race course and a technical college.  Sources from a government-sponsored militia said they would soon be moved away from Rangoon.  The detained monks have been disrobed and shackled, according to sources quoted by BBC Radio’s Burmese service.

The reports follow claims from a former intelligence officer in Burma’s ruling junta that thousands of protesters have been killed and the bodies of hundreds of executed monks have been dumped in the jungle.

[….]  

The most senior official to defect so far, Hla Win, said: “Many more people have been killed in recent days than you’ve heard about. The bodies can be counted in several thousand.” Mr Win said he fled when he was ordered to take part in a massacre of holy men.  [Daily Mail, London]

The secret is poorly kept.  Sylvester Stallone was in Burma filming Rambo IV when disfigured victims started streaming into his film set.  I’ll forgive Stallone for being in Burma in the first place if he tells the story truthfully.  Investors’ Business Daily sees the lesson that they’ve taken from this in Khartoum, Tehran, Beijing, and Pyongyang:  brutality works and comes without meaningful consequences.  Universal revulsion is not a meaningful consequence when the world is ruled by people with no principles, no spine, and no  sac.  A year from now, compare the amount of google hits on “Burma massacre” to “Abu Ghraib.” 

Maddening:  Watching the U.N. taken seriously by itself, the news media, and absolutely no one else who matters.

Maddening:  The idiots who want to run the world and eventually may are not only failing to recognize the only thing that can stop massacres and genocides — an armed victim — they’re trying to shut down the global trade in small arms.  It’s a perfect formula for  keeping  that which comes from the barrel of a gun  in the hands of  those who  flout every standard of civilized behavior, including U.N. nannies.  Brought to you by the same people who gave us the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Bosnia arms embargo.  (ht)

The most pleasant note on which I can close is that the lead thug in the junta, Than Swe, is 74 and may have cancer.  Finally, a  reason to be happy about cancer….

[Original title:  The Unseen Courage of Burma’s Monks]

19 Comments

  1. Thanks for covering this! The protest that was broken up by tear gas and warning shots most recently took place in Akyab, Arakan – one of the ethnic minority states. Much of the repression and conflict in Burma relates to the government’s belief that the ethnic minorities would all break away if they don’t forcibly hold the country together, so when events like this occur outside of central Burma, it adds an extra dimension to the issue, I think.

    Besides the protests, there is also a poster movement being initiated by students in Kachin State, where the monks have actually been put on lock-down by the military and are being kept from even their normal alms rounds.

    BNI Online aggregates stories from several exiled-Burmese news agencies, so it’s a good place to follow these events if readers are interested. The KNG also has good coverage of the events in Kachin State, which were triggered as much, if not more so, by the end of the National Convention as the fuel price hike. Insurgent groups in the north are gearing up to break the ceasefires, expecting a government offensive in the wake of the National Convention, so there are really many pivotal events that seem to have converged and deserve watching.

  2. God I really hope democracy comes to Burma!
    My respect and prayers go out to the monks and protesters!

    I’m glad you’re covering this. This is so important for Asia and the world. Maybe/hopefully this will inspire people in other countries to raise up.

    I wonder how the Chinese government will react to their coveted satellite state shifting to a democracy and the loss of a naval base in the Indian ocean.

    Cheers to the people of Burma!

  3. As the military government pours troops into Rangoon, I hope the US could at least display a show of force with a carrier and amphibious battle group. That would be so helpful. Why doesn’t the president do that?

  4. My friend’s wife is from Burma and she was telling me most people join the military for a paycheck as well as setting themselves up to get into a position to advance themselves through corruption. She says that people would be surprised how many major hotels, restaurants, companies, etc. are owned relatives of officers.

    Anyway as expected things have turned bloody in Burma:

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/time/20070926/wl_time/exclusivemonksvspoliceinburma

    It will be interesting to see what method the global community uses to ignore the bloodshed this time.

  5. Yup. I am using articles and some video clips that have gotten out of Burma in my high school classes as part of current events. I started back when the protests first started gaining members.

    But, I always revolve around two contradictory modes of being that I sum up this way: 1. No man is an island whole and unto himself and 2. All life if local.

    Given the strength of the US in contemporary times, the chance that the outside world would strike home in my part of the world is small. Even something like 9/11 would not affect me if I chose to bury my head in the sand. At some point in the future for the US, things might change. We might go back to a Cold War footing or even worse, at some point, back to a major challenge like in World War II with blocks of powerful nations falling under a hostile system or even worse – internal upheaval, but none of that is on the horizon, and I would stand a good chance of making through the rest of my life without having to care if I buried my head.

    And at times, doing so looks like the smart option — because the world is shitty at taking care of itself………..little gets done…..and the North Koreas, Rwandas, Darfurs, and Burmas continue to happen…..

  6. Sadly, the US domestic media seems to be devoting more coverage to Britney losing her kids than the bloody crackdown in Myanmar.

  7. revisiting your coverage of this event.

    A year from now, compare the amount of google hits on “Burma massacre” to “Abu Ghraib.”

    It is about a year and half now and I did just that.
    “Burma massacre” = 465,000 hits
    “Abu Ghraib” = 2,650,000 hits

    Thank you for doing your part to cover this and seeing that it isn’t forgotten.

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