Burmese Daze

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Things are getting warmer in Yangon

After a week or two with almost no protests in Yangon, today has seen the biggest protest yet in Yangon. This morning Thein Byu Road, in central Yangon, was closed by protests (unconfirmed reports say that riot police were beating up protestors). This afternoon, 400 or so monks marched silently in single file to the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda and were turned away by plainclothes security men, so they walked downtown instead. Pedestrians reportedly made the traditional sign of respect (hands pressed together) as the monks passed. This may not seem like a big deal, but in a previous march by monks in Sittwe town a few weeks ago, two men were sentenced to 4 years in jail for giving water to the marching monks; showing any sort of support to a protest can land you in very hot water indeed here.

There are reports of a larger protest today, again by monks, in Bago, 80 km to the northeast. It's an ancient capital city and big religious centre, full of monasteries, and apparently nearly 1000 monks marched to the biggest pagoda in town, the Shwemadaw, to protest at the fuel price hikes. Yesterday, the first day of co-ordinated monk protests, 400 monks are reported to have marched in Kyaukpadaung, near Pakokku.

Monks have been busy organizing and planning since the Pakokku incident two weeks ago in which a number of them were beaten by police, and shots were fired over their heads. Apparently a previously-unknown organization of monks has formed to co-ordinate the monastic response to government crackdowns. There are reports that the monks will refuse to accept alms and donations from anyone connected with the army until an apology is forthcoming for the Pakokku beatings, and until the fuel price rises are rolled back. This doesn't sound like much of a threat, but in a staunchly Buddhist country it would be a tremendous humiliation and sign of contempt for the generals.

These new protests come just as it seemed that the government was succeeding in cracking down on protests and the people who organize them and report them. Several people have been jailed recently, one for calling for Number One, General Than Shwe, to be "excommunicated" by the Buddhist establishment (I think they mean that all donations and alms from Than Shwe would be refused, and that no prayers or religious ceremonies be performed for him). The National League for Democracy has had its phone lines cut off in Yangon, and a number of journalists, dissidents and labour organizers have had their cell phone service cut off, presumably to stem the flow of information.

As well, state newspapers, radio and TV are full of angry denunciations of protestors, Western diplomats, the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi and anyone who opposes the government. Movies on the only pay-TV private station in the country are being interrupted constantly so that more denunciations can be broadcast, much to the annoyance of those people who have paid money to watch movies uninterrupted by commericals.

And yet the government, for all their supposedly sophisticated Internet monitoring and censorship, still hasn't blocked most Western news sites, nor closed blogging sites like this one (which was blocked for most of the past 12 months). Reuters, VOA, CNN, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and a few other new sites have been blocked recently, but BBC, the International Herald Tribune and many other sites remain open, so that information still gets in pretty easily. People still walk around early in the morning with radios clamped to their ears to hear the Burmese-language broadcasts from the BBC, Radio Free Asia and VOA, all of which report extensively on goings-on in the country.

The next few days could be very tense, and even decisive in determining whether protest continue to swell as monks lend their immense prestige to them, or whether the government will finally respond with overwhelming force. It's no coincidence that these protests are happening exactly 19 years since the current thugocracy (a word stolen from a recent issue of the Economist) seized power in a coup after the 1988 student protests. Let us hope that the bloodbath of 1988 is not repeated again in 2007.


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