Free Burma!

Free Burma!

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  1. On 15 August the government decided to increase the price of fuel. Both petrol and diesel doubled in price, while the cost of compressed gas – used to power buses – increased five-fold.

    The hikes hit Burma’s people hard, forcing up the price of public transport and triggering a knock-on effect for staples such as rice and cooking oil.

    Burmese people are angry about the sudden fuel price increase
    Pro-democracy activists led the initial demonstrations in Burma’s main city, Rangoon. When about 400 people marched on 19 August, it was the largest demonstration in the military-ruled nation for several years.

    The authorities moved swiftly to quell the protests, rapidly arresting dozens of activists. Nonetheless, protests continued around the country. Numbers were small, but demonstrations were held in Rangoon, Sittwe and other towns.

    Why did the monks get involved?

    The monks started participating in large numbers after troops used force to break up a peaceful rally in the central town of Pakokku on 5 September.

    At least three monks were hurt. The next day, monks in Pakokku briefly took government officials hostage. They gave the government until 17 September to apologise, but no apology was forthcoming.

    When the deadline expired, the monks began to protest in much greater numbers and also withdrew their religious services from the military and their families.

    More and more Buddhist monks chose to join the marches

    There were daily protests following the deadline, both in Rangoon and elsewhere, which got bigger by the day. Tens of thousands of monks were involved.

    The participation of the monks is significant because there are hundreds of thousands of them and they are highly revered. The clergy has historically been prominent in political protests in Burma.

    Because of the clergy’s influence, the government has tried hard to woo many senior abbots. The fact that the abbots chose to remain silent was a sign for many people that they condoned the protests.

    Were the protests about an apology then?

    For some of the monks, yes. But for others, it went far beyond that.

    Analysts say the fuel price hikes were the last straw for the monks, who were witnessing the country’s grinding poverty first hand.

    A group called the Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks emerged to co-ordinate the protests, and on 21 September they issued a statement describing the military government as “the enemy of the people”.

    The group pledged to continue their protests until they had “wiped the military dictatorship from the land of Burma”, and called on people across Burma to join them.

    One rally marched past the house of detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, clearly linking the monks’ movement with a desire for a change of government.

    Did others join in?

    In the initial days of the protests, the public did not appear to be involved – commentators suggested that they were too scared of retaliation.

    Aung San Suu Kyi was able to greet the monks over the weekend

    But that gradually changed as the demonstrations grew in size.

    Footage of one protest showed people lining the route as the monks marched, forming a chain to protect them from any retaliation from soldiers.

    And on 24 September, thousands of people responded to a call from the monks and joined a massive protest in Rangoon.

    Key members of the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) also joined the protests, after initially distancing themselves from the action.

    What has the government done about it?

    At first, the country’s military leaders held back, letting the protests continue. But after a week of increasingly large protests, they warned they were ready to “take action”.

    A dawn-to-dusk curfew was introduced and hundreds of troops and riot police moved in to quell further protests.

    Despite a crackdown on the internet and mobile phone links to the outside world, television pictures showed police using baton charges and tear gas on monks and fellow protesters.

    On the worst day of violence, 27 September, the junta said nine people had been killed, but the death toll is thought to be far higher.

    There have since been reports of thousands of arrests. Monks are said to have been rounded up and held in make-shift detention compounds to be transported to prison camps in the north.

    What has been the international reaction to the crisis?

    The US has tightened sanctions on the military leadership and, along with the EU, has called for action to be taken over the protests. But neither the US or the EU have significant influence on the country’s leadership.

    China, which is Burma’s closest ally and seen as having most influence on the junta, has called on the leaders to restrain from violence. But it has maintained its traditional reluctance to interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries. India and Russia, which also have links with Burma, have taken a similar stance.

    The Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) – of which Burma is a member – made one of its strongest ever statements against a member country, calling on the Burmese authorities to halt violence against the demonstrators.

    The UN’s special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, has just returned from a visit to the country where he held meetings with the senior military leaders and detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

    He will report back to the UN Security Council on the outcome of his meetings.

    When did Burma last see protests like these?

    The last time Burma saw anything on this scale was during the popular uprising of August 1988.

    These protests were triggered by the government’s decision in 1987 to devalue the currency, wiping out many people’s savings.

    Demonstrations began among students and then gradually spread to monks and the public. These culminated in a national uprising on 8 August 1988, when hundreds of thousands of people marched to demand a change of government.

    The government sent troops to brutally suppress the protests. At least 3,000 people are believed to have died.

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