Will Burma rise again?
Students led the 1988 uprising. What is the state of the protest movement now?
Burmese journalist Zaw Gyi tries to gauge the climate.
Two Rangoon comedians were recently handed out long jail-sentences – for the crime of making fun of the military regime. A senior UN official, Georgio Giacamelli, was vilified in the state-run newspapers – because during his recent visit to Rangoon he had the audacity to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi. Meanwhile, in Rangoon tea shops, inflation has been the main topic of conversation, residents complaining that they can no longer afford to buy anything more than htamajei – the water rice is boiled in. Sold in bottles, the brew used to be drunk after dinner – now it’s being consumed instead of dinner.
With the military regime controlling both the economy and government, it is not hard to point the finger of blame for poverty, repression and corruption in Burma today. Indeed, the country’s largest firm – The Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings – was set up by the army in 1990 and is managed by retired and active military personnel.
But how much longer can all this continue? Will such hardship and corruption, combined with political repression, lead to an uprising, like that of 8 August 1988?
The role of students in Burma should not be underestimated. In 1988 the student-led movement toppled a regime, before Ne Win moved to put the SLORC junta into power. In Burma, as in many Asian countries, students consider themselves to be key players in political change. It will be difficult for the junta to erase that tradition. Sources in Rangoon believe the military authorities still fear possible unrest: ‘They are very anxious about controlling the students,’ remarked one.
Student leader Min Ze Ya and his group released a statement in January of this year calling for the junta to release all student detainees. The statement said: ‘The SLORC has freed political prisoners [since 1992] but very few students have been released. They should be freed and allowed to return to classrooms.’
As a result he was banished by military intelligence to his home town in Mon State. The warning from the junta was: ‘If you don’t go back you will be arrested.’ Many student activists are in similar situations and under strict surveillance.
Recent reports indicate that students and activists in Rangoon are secretly distributing leaflets, newsletters and documents against the junta. ‘Everyone hates SLORC – even people who are making money,’ said one source who has been closely following Rangoon politics. ‘We can see there is so much anger and frustration. But the opposition is working for the long term. It is not enough just to go out and say: “We hate SLORC”.’
The feeling today is that going out on the streets to be shot at is not the strategy to pursue. ‘Thousands were murdered in 1988, but what did we get?’ say Rangoon and Mandalay residents. ‘Suu Kyi is doing the right thing. She knows what she is doing. She is the only one who dares to challenge authority and speak out.’ According to a member of the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi’s party: ‘She is trying to build up something and waiting for the right moment.’
However, ethnic armies along the border with Thailand are less optimistic about what non-violent resistance can achieve. ‘SLORC only talks to those with weapons,’ said a Karenni rebel. The urban opposition suffered heavily under the regime. At least opponents with guns could fight back when attacked by SLORC. If armed, he believed, the opposition would win.
Student activist Tay Za, who came to Thailand after spending a total of thirteen months in three prisons, is more hopeful: ‘We want to show that the movement is not dead. It is happening.’
Nothing is ever predictable in Burma. But as long as the junta ignores its political opposition and resists meaningful discussion while continuing its brutal tactics of arrest and intimidation, it will face major unrest at home as well as increasingly strong anti-SLORC campaigns abroad.
If there is a public uprising in the foreseeable future it won’t come as a surprise to the junta. ‘They are ready to put them down,’ said a SLORC-watcher ominously.
Zaw Gyi (an alias) is a Burmese journalist, forced to flee the country in 1988. He lives and works in exile in Thailand.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
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