Mass monk protests put Burma junta in a dilemma

Hunkered down in their new capital, far removed from the largest anti-government movement since 1988, Burma’s ruling generals are caught in a rare dilemma.

They can either come down hard on the Buddhist monks leading the protests — and risk turning pockets of dissent into nationwide outrage as reports and grainy mobile phone images of revered, maroon-robed men and boys being beaten up leak out.

Or they can give them a free rein to march round a few cities and towns — and risk the movement spreading across the country, and into other social groups, such as the students or civil servants, the other key players in the 1988 uprising.

The latest sector of society to throw their hats into the ring are celebrities, with some of the South-east Asian nation’s top names in stage and screen calling for support of the monks on foreign Burmese-language radio stations.

At present, the junta’s strategy appears to be softly-softly, analysts say, citing Saturday’s stunning decision to let 500 monks through barbed-wire barricades outside the house of detained opposition leader and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi’s 15-minute appearance in a doorway to her gated house was the first time the 62-year-old Nobel laureate has been seen in public since her latest arrest in May 2003. She has spent nearly 12 of the last 18 years in jail or under house arrest.

Although they were blocked in an attempted repeat on Sunday, the unprecedented success has put the bit firmly between the monks’ teeth.

”There’s no prospect now of the monks just deciding to abandon this,” a Yangon-based diplomat said on Monday, as tens of thousands of people joined monks in another march from the gilded Shwedagon pagoda through the middle the former Burma’s commercial capital.

”They are getting braver every day and their demands are getting greater every day, and it’s much more overtly political,” the diplomat said.

”It’s now about Aung San Suu Kyi, it’s about reform.”

Ominous history

Despite apparent reluctance to send in soldiers now, history suggests the junta — the latest face of 45 years of unbroken military rule — will come down hard, as it did in 1988 when up to 3 000 people are thought to have been killed.

In 1988, the protests built up over several months, with students, monks then civil servants joining a gradually swelling movement against the generals’ military rule and their economic mismanagement. Now, however, students have been moved to the outskirts of Yangon, and government workers are coralled in Naypyitaw, 390km north of Yangon.

Rumours are swirling around Yangon of imminent emergency law, hospitals being emptied and battalions of soldiers massing on the city outskirts. However, there is no sign of a major security presence in the heart of the former capital, witnesses say.

”I don’t see how the military is going to improve and I’m just worried that they will crack down,” said Win Min, a 1988 student protester who fled to Thailand.

”That’s their traditional way of dealing with this sort of thing. They never compromise and they have no idea how to negotiate.”

Diplomats say Beijing — the closest the junta has to a friend — may also be playing a quiet role behind the scenes, building on public statements this month at an Asia-Pacific summit in Sydney urging ”national reconciliation”.

But any ”pro-reform” elements within the junta’s top leadership also face formidable impediments.

Not least of these is supremo Than Shwe’s personal dislike of Suu Kyi, said to be so intense the 73-year-old ”Senior General” refuses to allow her name to be mentioned in his presence.

Some analysts also said the lack of action may simply be because the junta has been caught off guard by the speed with which protests has mushroomed from sporadic marches against fuel prices in mid-August to massed ranks marches a month later. – Reuters

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