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Protests in Myanmar Draw International Reaction

September 25, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT
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The military rulers of the South Asian nation of Myanmar threatened to crack down on continuing pro-democracy protests on Tuesday even as President Bush announced new sanctions aimed at bringing reform. Regional analysts examine where the standoff is headed.
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TIM EWART, ITV News Correspondent: Burma’s monks were back on the streets today, unbowed by threats of a military crackdown. In the capital Rangoon, as many as 10,000 monks led another huge protest march. Soldiers and armed police were out in force, but after most of the demonstrators dispersed.

Independent reporting is increasingly difficult in Burma, but one undercover journalist who watched the demonstrations believes they were the biggest so far.

BRITISH UNDERCOVER JOURNALIST: It started with an air of tension, I think, and people were tense, it’s definitely fair to say towards the beginning. As it went on and they saw just how big it was and that there was apparently going to be no attempt to crush it, they seemed to relax. And there was a kind of a almost festive spirit.

TIM EWART: The protests in Burma were triggered by fuel price increases but have spread to wider grievances. Earlier this month at a rally in Pakkoku, soldiers fired over the heads of monks. They demanded an apology from the military, which was refused.

Over the last few weeks, the protests have spread. In the country’s second largest city, Mandalay, 15,000 monks marched yesterday, and similar shows of defiance have been held across Burma.

The biggest protests are in the old capital city, Rangoon. The focal point is the Shwedagon Pagoda, immortalized by Rudyard Kipling. Marches have started here, some converging on the home of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest. She has reportedly now been transferred to a prison, a first sign, perhaps, that Burma’s military rulers intend to get tough.

This is their religious affairs minister, a brigadier general. He was on his knees before senior monks, but his message was ominous: If protests aren’t stopped, the government will act “according to its regulations.”

More and more families have become refugees, fleeing into the safety of camps like this on the border with Thailand. The monks, meanwhile, seem determined to carry on with their protests.

JIM LEHRER: And to Ray Suarez.

Biggest demonstrations in decades

Bridget Welsh
Johns Hopkins University
Well, I think that it is clear there's some very new -- there are some very new issues. You have the role of the monks playing a very critical role, and they symbolize issues of moral authority in Burma.

RAY SUAREZ: For more now on the situation in Myanmar and where it's headed, we're joined by Bridget Welsh, a professor of Southeast Asia studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. And Michael Green, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he's also a professor at Georgetown University and served as senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council from January 2004 to December 2005.

Well, Professor Welsh, these have been called the biggest demonstrations in decades. In this stand-off between people and the army, is this just a re-eruption of old grievances, or are there new things on the table? What brought up this latest set of rallies?

BRIDGET WELSH, Professor, Johns Hopkins: Well, I think that it is clear there's some very new -- there are some very new issues. You have the role of the monks playing a very critical role, and they symbolize issues of moral authority in Burma.

And in a sense is what's happened vis-a-vis the questions of the fuel prices, as well as the shooting that took place in Pakkoku, have indicated to many people in Burma that this is actually -- that a line has been crossed for ordinary people on the ground. And even though there are longstanding issues, questions of the regime being very repressive, I think that the conditions have shifted economically and politically.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Green, why monks? Looking at from the West at what's going on in Myanmar, how do monks become the cutting edge of a social movement, and thousands of them?

MICHAEL GREEN, Center for Strategic and International Studies: In some ways because those who would normally march -- students, democracy leaders -- can't. They're imprisoned. The military is willing to use more repressive means against them, so the monks can, because they have the moral authority that Bridget was describing.

Three-quarters of the people in Burma -- 50 million people in that country -- are Buddhist. Thailand next door, strong Buddhist tradition. So the monks have a moral authority, and even reaching into the military, that the leadership of the junta simply can't ignore. It's why you saw the religious affairs minister bowing to the monks' leaders, even as he was sending a very threatening message.

Military begins crackdown

Michael Green
Center for Strategic & Inter. Studies
The military junta has clearly been taken aback and surprised at how quickly this spread in Rangoon in the north and elsewhere. The monks are well-organized, and I think that always has surprised the government.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, they've just passed a new law banning any assembly of more than five people, yet we see groups of thousands of monks on the streets of the biggest cities in the country.

MICHAEL GREEN: That's right. The military junta has clearly been taken aback and surprised at how quickly this spread in Rangoon in the north and elsewhere. The monks are well-organized, and I think that always has surprised the government.

And they are a day or two behind in responding. What's worrisome is they're beginning to organize themselves, the military, to respond in what could be a much more brutal fashion, as they did in 1988.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Welsh, remind us what has happened in the past when there have been these kinds of confrontations.

BRIDGET WELSH: Well, the military came into power in 1962, but it gave up power after a massive protest led by students in 1988. And this led to a process of reconciliation. An election was held in 1990.

The government, the junta, chose to ignore those election results and has stayed in power and arrested the key symbolic leader of those elections, Aung San Suu Kyi. And she's been in prison for over 15 years. She had a short period of time that she was released. And at that time, the National League for Democracy actually became more mobilized. And she was rearrested. And she, as the videotape shows, she is now currently arrested. And they've moved her from her home, where she was under house arrest, to the leading prison, Insein Prison, and that raises very serious concerns, just like Mike was talking about.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, she's the most visible resistance person in Myanmar and a Nobel Peace Prize-winner. Are other people not being treated so kindly by the regime?

BRIDGET WELSH: Well, there are lots of political prisoners. The exact amount is actually unknown. And the government has had a record of using, arresting people, and what you've seen is when these protests over the fuel prices began, when ordinary people came out to the street, particularly those that were associated with Generation '88, the government cracked down on them.

And subsequently you see the monks are really the second wave of protest and -- I think Mike rightly points out -- ones that are very organized. And it's now because of their moral authority that ordinary people have felt comfortable coming in and joining those protests, from street children to ordinary bureaucrats, even those in the civil service, and people who really have faced this very severe economic conditions that are in this country; 500 percent increase in oil prices and fuel in a country that has massive poverty is really very serious.

Effect of international pressure

Bridget Welsh
Johns Hopkins University
The monks are just asking for dialogue. They're not asking to turn the government over. Some are, but not all of them. And that's a key step. Dialogue is a key step that needs to be taken. And I think that that message needs to get across.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, is there any sign that international attention or international pressure is staying the junta's hand, that they don't want to be seen going out and busting heads and doing mass arrests?

MICHAEL GREEN: I think so. After the last major protests, which resulted in a military crackdown, possibly thousands killed -- we still don't know -- 20 years ago, the international community split. The U.S., a lot of Western democracies, imposed sanctions. China, Southeast Asia nations, even Japan, preferred patient engagement.

This time, 20 years later, it's pretty clear that neither has worked terribly well, but patience has definitely run thin in the region. China and India are the primary supporters of this regime economically. India is a democracy and a friend of the United States. And China, staging the Olympics in 2008, eager to have good relations with the U.S., to have a good reputation, are very worried about where this is going, because it will stain their reputation and become a problem with them.

So, quietly, I think most people watching this think that both India and China and others in the region are sending a stern message, warning that a repressive crackdown would not be a good move. So there is sustained international attention. And that really has stayed their hand, I think, and has created the first opportunity in many decades to start building some real change.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you've talked about the rising poverty. You've talked about the tremendous run-up in prices of staples. But is it India and China that Professor Green mentioned that's keeping this government in business?

BRIDGET WELSH: Well, they're providing a sense of limiting the international community's use of sanctions at the U.N., for example. And it's not just China and India, but also Russia who actually has also had to play a key veto vote.

But China in particular, much more so than India, has been a key supporter of the government. They've provided arms, and they've provided a lot of moral support and a strong relationship. And they have vested interests in doing that. And that is because they are trying to access a lot of the oil and gas that now has actually become clear that Burma has, former Myanmar. And India also wants a part of that.

So there are these underlying interests at play that make it very difficult for China to change its position. And one of the key things now -- this is a test whether or not they're willing to take a responsible position in the international community, to send a clear message that what's happening in Myanmar-Burma really has to stop and that they have to engage in dialogue.

The monks are just asking for dialogue. They're not asking to turn the government over. Some are, but not all of them. And that's a key step. Dialogue is a key step that needs to be taken. And I think that that message needs to get across.

U.S. leverage in Myanmar

Michael Green
Center for Strategic & Inter. Studies
By ramping up the sanctions, I think we do two things. First, we give moral support to those protesting in Burma. There's no doubt that Aung San Suu Kyi and the democracy leaders want these sanctions and want this pressure.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, over the last 15 years, the United States has increasingly disengaged and shunned Myanmar. Today, the president, George Bush, announced a visa ban, further sanctions. But does the United States have any remaining leverage in this country? Does its disfavor really matter that much to the people in charge there?

MICHAEL GREEN: Well, our sanctions are limited in their effectiveness because China, India, Thailand, and others have stepped in. However, I think that we do have the ability to set the initiative on how the international community responds.

These new sanctions are very targeted. The president was careful to say that we're looking for ways to increase humanitarian aid directly to the people of Burma. So there's a recognition that we don't want to hurt the people of Burma. The U.S. has also had senior officials meet with Burmese officials in Beijing to explore dialogue and engagement.

But by ramping up the sanctions, I think we do two things. First, we give moral support to those protesting in Burma. There's no doubt that Aung San Suu Kyi and the democracy leaders want these sanctions and want this pressure.

The second thing we do is, we set the bar higher, so that when China, Thailand, the neighborhood respond, they see where we're going with this. And I think this is very different from 1988. In 1988, we had tense relations with India. It was before Tiananmen in China. There were authoritarian governments in Southeast Asia.

Today, you have a democratic Indonesia, we have a terrifically strong relationship with India building. So the context around Burma has changed. And I think our initiative could more than at any point in the past start to consolidate some international work to try to bring change to this country.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Green, Professor Welsh, thank you both.

BRIDGET WELSH: Thank you, Ray.