As the Burmese military crackdown on the monks' protests intensifies, the parallels with the events that culminated in the massacres of 1988 are becoming starker.
The present crisis began last month when the regime raised fuel prices by up to 50 per cent overnight, making everyday life for the impoverished Burmese impossible. The crisis of '88 began with a similar crass act of economic folly, when dictator General Ne Win demonetarised high-value currency notes with equal suddenness, wiping out the savings of millions of Burmese without compensation.
In 2007, as in 1988, visceral fury at a regime that cares nothing for the suffering of the people it rules has mutated rapidly into a broader expression of political exasperation. Ne Win seized power in 1962 and his so-called "Burmese Way to Socialism" transformed Asia's rice basket into a country whose main goal in 1987 – one it achieved – was to obtain "least-developed nation" status at the United Nations. For the rebels, economic hardship and political frustration were two sides of the same coin. Nineteen years on, little has changed.
The generals continue to plunder the wealth of the country for their own profit, operating a vast underground economy based on drugs, gems, timber and gas. None of the wealth trickles down to the ordinary Burmese, who are still Asia's poorest of the poor. And the monks who crucially seized the initiative in these latest protests know this in their stomachs. To survive they depend on receiving alms from ordinary people – who are less and less able to give. What they used to get from four or five houses, now takes 30 to 35.
The last time round the protests went on for months almost entirely out of the eye of the Western media, until attacks on government property during a demonstration in March 1988 provoked a ferocious reaction where tanks came onto the streets and around 100 civilians were killed. Despite that, the students who led the protests refused to be cowed and their continuing protests ushered in Burma's hallucinatory "summer of democracy", when deliverance really did appear to be at hand. In early August, student leaders called for a general strike, the ousting of the ruling generals, release of political prisoners, restoration of democracy and an end to human rights abuses: pretty much the same as what this week's protesters demand.
They also called for another huge rally, on 8/8/88 – the day that will go down in infamy because on that day the army turned their weapons on the rebels in earnest, killing some 3,000 of them. The regime does not hesitate to evoke memories of that massacre in the cause of stoking fear and Burma has lived in the shadow of that massacre ever since.
The State Peace and Development Council, as the regime calls itself, has bared its teeth over the last two days But this is a military junta which in 1988 took the lives of some 10,000 protesters, 3,000 in the awful month of September of that year alone.
That is the difference between then and now: this rebellion is still at a tender stage. From a standing start a little over a month ago, the protests have built rapidly to a significant head of steam. What has happened over the past 10 days in particular, since the monks suddenly seized the initiative, taking advantage of the generals' superstitious reluctance to harm them, has been spectacular, and would have been inconceivable even two months ago. But politically it remains extremely immature.
No leaders have yet emerged, as happened repeatedly during the tumultuous events of 1987-88. Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, heroes of the '88 uprising and victors of the 1991 general election, has only come out in support of the latest uprising in the last couple of days. Its senior leaders are old men now, its young leaders are reportedly back in jail after failing in their efforts to start a dialogue with the regime. No concrete demands have been voiced by monks or others, other than the obvious call for the restoration of democracy and human rights.
For its part, the regime under General Than Shwe, who has essentially been running the country since 1988, appears even more hermit-like and recalcitrant than ever. Cloistered away from the turmoil in their new jungle capital of Naypyidaw, they have given no indication of willingness to move an inch towards reconciliation with the thousands marching against them.
As ever, the only imperative of the regime is its own survival. For this they require the utmost discipline and obedience of the army, from top to bottom. One reason, now as in 1988, that troops are believed to have been moved from the insurgent areas to Rangoon, was to ensure that when the order came to fire on unarmed civilians – and who knows, on Sons of Buddha too – there would be no flinching. The battle-hardened brutes from the East can be relied on to do that.
The 1988 endgame was precipitated when soldiers began showing signs of siding with the rebels.
No such smiling, rebellious soldiers have been seen yet. This repetition of history may still have a long way to run. But a happy ending seems no more likely than last time around.Reuse content