Burma Protests Draw Harsh Crackdown
Recent protests in Burma by democracy activists, defiant monks and other citizens objecting to an unprecedented spike in fuel prices have sparked a brutal crackdown by the country's ruling military junta and cast a new spotlight on the gravity of conditions in the resource-rich country.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced Monday that he was dispatching his special adviser on Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, to hold talks with the military rulers. The announcement came after the United Nations' independent expert on human rights in Burma, Geneva-based Paulo S?rgio Pinheiro, disclosed that he had received reports of severe beatings and torture of detainees from this latest sweep of arrests. Amnesty International said more than 150 people have been detained since Aug. 19.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday in a statement that the United States was concerned about the fate of those detainees. "Multiple reports indicate that many of these protesters have been brutally beaten and interrogated," McCormack said. He called on the junta to allow access to them by human rights groups and the International Red Cross and to release all political prisoners.
The rare demonstrations and unrest across the closed country, also known as Myanmar, were sparked by an overnight increase Aug. 19 of up to 500 percent in fuel prices, which left public transportation and basic consumer goods unaffordable to much of the impoverished population.
Monks joined the protests late last week, which brought monasteries and temples under scrutiny by soldiers searching for evidence of incitement. Angry at being beaten with bamboo poles, some monks took 13 officials hostage in the central city of Pakokku as 500 of the clergymen in orange robes marched peacefully. Government troops and hired gunmen blocked the protesters, Radio Free Asia reported from Bangkok. One monk told the radio service that attackers rounded up fleeing monks with lassos and beat them with truncheons and rifle butts.
Similar incidents involving monks elsewhere in the country seemed to add popular legitimacy to the uprising.
Monks go out daily with bowls to beg for food from the population, which supports them. Over the weekend, they reportedly formed a group called the National Front of Monks and demanded that the junta express regrets over the violence, reduce fuel prices, which previously were subsidized, and begin negotiations with the opposition National League for Democracy and the 88 Generation Students movement. An uprising in 1988 was brutally crushed by the military, and some veterans of that protest formed the 88 Generation Students group.
President Bush and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have decried the heavy-handed tactics against political prisoners and citizens and called on Burma's leadership to heed international calls to free democracy activists. First lady Laura Bush also weighed in last week, urging the world community to do something to alleviate the suffering of the Burmese and to gain the release Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent 12 years under detention or house arrest.
Like Sudan's troubled Darfur region, Burma has become a cause for celebrities and activists, who are calling attention to the junta's excesses through such means as the video-sharing YouTube Web site and global letter-writing campaigns. Last Thursday, 25 Hollywood stars, including actors Jim Carrey and Dustin Hoffman, called on the United Nations to put more pressure on the junta to release Suu Kyi, whose party won 1990 elections but was blocked from taking power by the military. Owen Wilson, Susan Sarandon and Jennifer Aniston were among those joining the petition.
Analysts agree that the United States and Western powers can do little to persuade Burmese military leaders to lessen their hold over the population, saying the main pressure would have to come from countries such as China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. While the United States has an embassy in Rangoon, no U.S. official is allowed to engage military or top political leaders there.
Priscilla Clapp, the former attache at the U.S. Embassy in Burma, said the recent riots were significant, though still not as widespread as the 1988 student protests. In an interview yesterday, she said she sensed strain within the Burmese leadership and found the precipitous withdrawal of fuel subsidies "extremely suspicious."
Clapp said country's rulers, in their new capital Naypyidaw, which translates as "abode of kings," had lost touch with citizens. "Sitting in this golden bunker, in their little palaces," the generals "don't comprehend or fully appreciate the economic distress the population is under," she said.
Five of Burma's top generals are said to be sick, and for popular protests to continue after the arrests means that "people sense the regime is creaky," Clapp said. "I think the current regime is shaky. Corruption is massive."
Burma's prospects as a regional energy supplier appeared to brighten recently, with neighbors India and China vying for its natural gas reserves, some of which are offshore in the Bay of Bengal. China recently struck two deals with the Burmese government, one for a pipeline from a port that would receive oil tankers from the Middle East to service China's oil-starved southwestern regions, and another for natural gas.
Clapp said a combination of Chinese pressure and internal decay may be the only way to bring about change in Burma.
"I am sure the Chinese know that the U.S. is looking their way to talk to the Burmese," she said. "Long-term transition has to come from inside. We can't affect what is going on right now except rhetorically, and we should."