Leading Article: Peaceful defiance meets brute force in the duel for democracy in Burma

Click to follow

After 10 days of ever-braver defiance, Burma's incipient popular revolt appears to be in retreat. Soldiers and police are reported to have broken up the small groups of protesters who ventured out yesterday despite the violence of the previous day. While sporadic clashes were reported, most of Rangoon was locked down. The monks, whose peaceful marches had inspired a broad popular following, were forcibly confined to their monasteries as the military authorities sought methodically, and ruthlessly, to reclaim the streets.

The clampdown extended to the airwaves. The limits of modern communications for revolutionary purposes became apparent as telephone lines were cut, the internet and mobile phone signals blocked. The vivid eyewitness accounts that had brought Burma's gathering protests to the outside world became fewer and further between. A Japanese cameraman was killed and the work of the very few foreign journalists in the country was thwarted.

The likelihood must be that when the UN special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, arrives in Burma today, he will find a regime confident that it can restore its ultra-repressive form of order and resistant to pressure for compromise. If this is so, however, the generals may have miscalculated. This September show of people power suggests that their autocratic reign could be nearing its end.

The main triggers for the protests were both home grown: a sharp rise in food prices, occasioned by economic mismanagement and international isolation, and the brutality with which police tried to suppress the first protests. The generals' resort to force may keep them in power a little longer, but it risks fuelling the simmering discontent. In a predominantly Buddhist country, the sight of saffron-robed monks mounting passive resistance to secular power has a significance that cannot be ignored.

The speed with which these protests escalated was a clear warning to the generals. In shutting down communications and reasserting their authority, they may have sealed Burma off once again from the world. That opposition groups and their supporters in the country's diaspora were able to get their message out, and then back into the country, for so long, however, exposes the growing difficulty for any regime that seeks security in isolation. Now that Burma's hunger for democracy has been brought home so graphically to the rest of the world, the country's opposition will surely be emboldened.

The manner in which the generals set about ending the monks' revolt also hints at a new awareness of constraints. In 1988, the regime showed no compunction about shooting and beating protesters. An estimated 3,000 people were killed. In recent days, the authorities have proceeded more cautiously. This could be, as some have suggested, because China urged its ally to avoid bloodshed that might stain Beijing's showcase Olympics, or – as also reported – because the generals could not rely on their troops to fire on monks and civilians. But if even a regime as closed as Burma's has understood that another Tiananmen Square is to be avoided, this is progress – albeit of a primitive kind.

Burma's protests, which erupted by chance as the UN General Assembly convened, have engaged almost universal sympathy – not least for the dignity of the demonstrators and the unarguable justice of their cause. In Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma has an elected leader; it is not a complete stranger to democracy. A day will come when the generals will have to cede their power. It is in their interests, as well as those of Burma and its neighbours, that this should happen peacefully, and soon.