Leading article: People power and a junta whose days are numbered

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The Independent Online

The threats have failed. Tens of thousands of monks, students, democracy activists and ordinary civilians joined anti-government protests across Burma yesterday, despite the warning from the ruling junta that it is ready to "take action" to silence dissent. There were demonstrations in all the major cities. The crowds in the old capital, Rangoon, swelled to 100,000. What some are calling the "Saffron revolution", after the colour of the robes of the Buddhist monks, seems to have acquired an impressive momentum.

The doubling of fuel prices by the regime last month was the spark for these demonstrations. But discontent within the country has been growing for decades. Horrific misgovernment and oppression by the military regime have turned this once prosperous country into a tinderbox of suffering and discontent. We are now seeing the full scale of disaffection with the generals who control the country.

The goal of the protesters is clear. Crowds have been chanting for "democracy" and monks have been handing out pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi. The leader of the National League for Democracy, who is being held under house arrest by the regime, has unimpeachable democratic legitimacy. Her movement's 1990 election victory is clearly still valid in the minds of the people. Given the unprecedented scale of these protests, the moment of Burma's deliverance from military rule would seem to be at hand.

But this is a dangerous time. Lorries with loudspeakers warned yesterday that protests would be dispersed "by military force". Trucks full of troops have taken up positions in the centre of Rangoon. The junta's finger is on the trigger. All the instincts of the generals will be to attempt to crush these protests with violence. The last significant pro-democracy uprising in 1988 was successfully put down in this way. Some 3,000 people were killed as the army fired indiscriminately into crowds of demonstrators. And, if anything, the military has grown more brutal since then. It has shown no restraint whatsoever in its increasingly vicious war against tribal insurgents in the east.

Burma's neighbours and economic partners are the key to resolving this stand-off peacefully. It is likely that pressure from China has helped stay the generals' hands so far. China does not want a bloody act of repression by one of its regional allies and trading partners to overshadow its long-awaited Olympic showcase next year. We need more of this sort of pressure from the likes of India, Thailand and Singapore. Russia, another economic partner of the regime, should also be persuaded to exercise its influence. If the generals receive enough representations from friendly foreign powers, then it should be possible to avoid bloodshed and facilitate a stable transfer of power to Ms Suu Kyi.

Of course, the junta might choose to ignore its neighbours and economic partners, just as it has long ignored the representations and censure of the wider international community over its human rights record. But that would be just as dangerous to the regime's future as allowing the protests to continue. If the leadership found itself cut off economically, its days would be numbered. The generals need to be offered a way out. Another chant of the protesters has been "we want dialogue". The popular clamour, so far, has been for regime change rather than retribution. Promises of safety for the top rulers could be enough to bring this to an end.

It is time for the international community to convince the country's leaders to engage in a dialogue with their opponents. They need to recognise that speaking to those who are demanding democracy with such courage is now the only acceptable way open to them.