Veterans of 1988 at the forefront of latest action

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At the time, the outside world barely noticed. But on 19 August a group of middle-aged civilians in Rangoon took a remarkable stand, leading six weeks later to a wave of demonstrations that have challenged the Burmese regime.

The activists – members of the 88 Generation Students group – marched for five miles in the north of the former capital, cheered on by many of the people who stood and watched. The authorities videoed what was happening, but took no action.

That protest was followed by others that attracted several hundred people, angered by a government decision on 15 August to increase the price of fuel drastically. They were the biggest protests in Burma, a country transfixed by fear, for at least a decade.

The regime took swift action. Dozens of activists were seized in night raids, among them the group's leader, Paw U Tun (aka Min Ko Naing). The unofficial leader of an uprising in 1988 that almost brought down the regime, he was jailed soon afterwards for 15 years. He was imprisoned again in September last year, and only released in January.

Now Mr Naing and many of his colleagues involved in the August demonstrations are again behind bars, the regime having realised their potential to lead others on to the streets. They are among about 120 people detained before the latest wave of protests led by the monks.

The absence of these charismatic individuals has been felt in recent days. With the monks locked up or trucked back to their villages, civilians on the streets of Rangoon have lacked leadership. Western diplomats in Burma say it is because of their ability to rally others that these members of the 88 Generation Students were arrested.

Much attention has been paid in recent days to the National League for Democracy, the opposition group headed by the imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi. Many NLD members have been involved in the protests, and a number of senior figures have been arrested. But the 88 Generation Students have been at the forefront of the direct action.

The secretive group of generals who have ruled for the past four decades have evidently not lost their taste for spilling the blood of their subjects. Reports put the number of deaths last week between 10 and 200. Even if the larger number is correct, it falls far short – so far – of the estimated 3,000-6,000 killed in 1988.

Like the activists opposing them, the generals in charge of the corrupt, faltering state are little known in the West. The chairman of the State Peace and Development Council, as the regime styles itself, is General Than Shwe, 73, who has served as head of state since 1992. Initially considered more moderate than some of his colleagues, he has become increasingly hardline – refusing any negotiation with the democracy movement and reportedly acting against former prime minister Khin Nyunt, who was arrested after proposing dialogue.

Stories of the regime's paranoid behaviour are legion. At 6.37am two years ago – a time fixed by General Shwe's astrologer – the regime moved its capital from Rangoon 200 miles into the jungle at Naypidaw. Analysts wondered whether the decision might have been taken on security grounds, but no particularly persuasive reason was given.

Burma, once one of the region's most prosperous countries, is now the poorest. The government barely spends anything on education or health care for its people. Malnutrition is common, and child mortality rates are the highest in South-east Asia. When those dozen or so activists took to the streets six weeks ago, they knew they would be tapping into a deep well of suffering and anger.