Leading Article: Sheltered by a convenient lie

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The Independent Online

The scale of the protests in Burma increased yesterday. More than 3,000 red-robed Buddhist monks took to the streets in the western city of Sittwe. A thousand marched through Mandalay, with several hundred more in Rangoon, demanding the release of four monks arrested on Tuesday. This is the most serious challenge to face the military junta for at least two decades.

Burma's generals will be worried. Monks were the key players in the mass protests of 1988, to which the government responded with brutal violence. Tuesday's protest was over a 500 per cent rise in the price of petrol and compressed natural gas – a rise imposed by the government without the generals giving any reason. That is typical of this regime, as is the hardship it is causing ordinary people.

But there is more to these disturbances than fuel prices. A month ago a student group launched a pro-democracy protest in this country which has no free press, no democracy and no rule of law. Some 65 people were arrested; the leaders were transported away to the country's notorious Insein Jail.

It is frequently said that there is nothing much the rest of the world can do to exert pressure on this isolationist military regime which has terrorised Burma since the civilian government was toppled in 1962. That is a convenient lie.

The regime depends on international trade and investment to service the half million-strong army that keeps it in power. India and China, which are desperate to secure deals for Burma's vast off-shore natural gas fields, both deal with the regime.

India is selling military helicopters to the junta, which human rights activists fear will be used for internal repression. China also buys a lot of Burmese timber – some of which, shamefully, ends up in British shops. It has also signed an arms deal with the Burmese military. Thailand pays $1.2bn a year in cash to the regime for gas. Russia has agreed to build a nuclear reactor there. France happily does business with the ruling clique via its massive oil firm Total.

Only one country, the United States, applies trade sanctions against Burma. The rest of the international community makes muted expressions of concern but does nothing. Gordon Brown has now broken that silence by calling for the UN Security Council to discuss the issue.

But the people of Burma need more than discussion. They need a deadline for the release of all political prisoners. If that does not happen they need targeted economic sanctions imposed forthwith. And all the countries who currently trade with Burma should be shamed into backing them.