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No Retreat, No Surrender

Has the protest movement in Myanmar been crushed or is Burma's military government starting to crack? PJM Sydney editor Richard Fernandez looks at the events of the last few hours.

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September 27, 2007 - 4:19 pm

The most important development in Burma over the last 24 hours is that the protest movement has not retreated before the government crackdown. The blogger Jotman reports that many thousands gathered at the Sule Pagoda yesterday, September 27. The government responded by opening fire killing several people, including a Japanese journalist.

If the Burmese government thought this would end things they were wrong. The protesters quickly picked themselves off the floor and immediately afterward, as the Irrawaddy reports, crowds continued through the city defying the curfew.

Crowds defied the curfew in several parts of Rangoon on Thursday evening. A 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew was clamped on the city on Wednesday, but as darkness fell on Thursday crowds of protesters still roamed the streets. At Hledan junction, security forces fired warning shots after the crowds ignored orders to disperse and go home.

The lastest report from Irrawaddy dimly hints that it is the generals who may be starting to crack. Unconfirmed reports from a Western diplomat speculate that the government may try opening negotiations with the opposition and that Senior General Maung Aye, not the nominal paramount General Than Shwe is now in charge.

One western diplomat in Rangoon has speculated that army chief vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye may meet the detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi soon in an attempt to ease increasing tension in Burma. The source added that Maung Aye calls the shots for the moment.

Whether or not this is true, the generals are under increasing pressure. In my previous post on the Burmese situation, the Saffron Revolution I noted the need to turn the screws on individual generals:

One other possible weakness of the current protest movement is that it lacks the personalized target that Ferdinand Marcos and Nicolae Ceauşescu provided. By all accounts Senior General Than Shwe is the key figure in the Burmese junta. Yet he remains unknown to the Western public; and hence untargeted. If Western pressure were focused on individuals instead of being broadly diffused in general sanctions they might have more effect.

Someone in the White House may have been thinking along the same lines. Today the US government announced it will clamp down on 14 senior Burmese officials.

Thursday President Bush said America stood in solidarity with the people of Myanmar who are protesting against that nation’s military government, and called on countries with influence on the ruling junta to demand the army end violence against protestors. … The statement comes as the administration announces it’s imposing economic sanctions against 14 senior officials of Myanmar’s government. The action by the Treasury Department will freeze any assets that the targeted officials have in U.S. banks or other financial institutions under U.S. jurisdiction.

The Economist rightly believes that the Burmese military government will not surrender without a fight, but acknowledges that unlike 1988, advances in telecommunications have made it possible for the protesters to broadcast their images and message to a worldwide audience. The determination of the government to stay in power may not have changed, but the world media situation has. The Burmese drama has gripped the entire world, with bloggers contributing in large part to the effort. That coverage has elicited encouragement from both liberals and conservatives who are remarkably united on this issue. Even Burmese blogger Yangon Thu, no admirer of George Bush, is impressed by Laura Bush’s support for the protester’s cause. But more importantly, worldwide attention may have made it impossible, or at least very difficult, for the military government to employ its ultimate shutdown weapon: mass shootings. Event in Rangoon last night have shown that shooting a dozen a people and raiding monasteries won’t put this fire out.

The military government in Burma is far from beaten, but without the power to fire on people en masse, they are on the verge of losing control. Ironically, with international attention so closely focused on them, even resorting to mass shootings may actually result in the same loss of control. The protesters, for their part are similarly far from winning. If they lose momentum now the Burmese government may gradually recover. The protesters’ challenge is to make the junta lose control. The issue hangs in the balance and I don’t know if anyone knows which way the scales will tilt.

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