Thursday, October 04, 2007
Burmese Days posted by Richard SeymourThe brevity of the televisual gaze being what it is, we have been left with a superficial and ultimately pessimistic account of the revolt. The last we heard, I think, it was being suppressed by the army, who were hunting down dissidents all over the country. Well, I'm told that's only half true: the movement continues outside of Rangoon. According to Christina Fink, the protests could easily flare up again. People aren't risking being shot dead in the streets at the moment, but the revolt is far from dead. Giles Ji Ungpakorn explains that part of what's happening is that people learned their lesson from 1988:
In fact the recent demonstrations in Burma arise out of a realisation by the country's democracy activists that they cannot rely on Western powers or anyone else to bring about a change – they have to act themselves.
The last great uprising in Burma was the so called 8888 movement that started on 8 August 1988. It was initiated by student protests over economic issues but soon developed into demands for democracy (see below).
For years after the defeat of that uprising, demoralised activists had hoped the US would pressurise the Burmese junta into releasing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and negotiating a road map to democracy.
But lessons have since been learnt. Earlier this year a loose network of activists decided to start open protests in the form of "prayer marches" at temples. This was followed by the large demonstrations of monks after fuel price rises of 500 percent.
Thousands of ordinary people gained confidence and joined the monks' protests. Hundreds of politicised young men have become monks in recent years, partly due to the fact that the junta closed down or restricted entry to colleges and universities.
The temples were safer places for people to gather and talk, much like the mosques during Iran's 1979 revolution or the Catholic church in Communist Poland before the uprising there.
The pro-democracy movement today has more experience than in 1988. Twenty years ago it was prepared to allow Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to lead the movement.
Today there are more debates about the way forward. While everyone agrees that Suu Kyi and all political prisoners should be freed immediately, the radicals are wary of leaving the leadership of the movement in the hands of the NLD.
While many of the current activists trace their roots back to 8888, thousands of young people on the protests are too young to have taken part back then. This means that a whole new generation of people have become radicalised.
There are signs that they are prepared to resist the army with great courage and sacrifices. And democracy can only be achieved by overthrowing the junta.
This will involve fighting back – and also winning over ordinary soldiers to the side of the people.
Apparently when the Burmese regime did crack down on the protests, they sent all the regiments from Rangoon out of the city and shipped in others from across the country. That's how little they trust the soldiers. This isn't over by a long shot.