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Where Protests Can Prolong Army Rule

Where Protests Can Prolong Army Rule

By J. Sri Raman
t r u t h o u t | Columnist

Last week saw sudden eruptions of popular protests, breaking a graveyard peace preserved for long at gunpoint in two neighboring South Asian countries. The people of Burma and Bangladesh, however, are showing no readiness to rejoice too soon.

To many of them, democracy still seems a considerable distance away. To quite a few, the protests actually appear to portend a prolongation of army rule - whether direct or disguised now.

The protests, though smaller, came as a much greater surprise in Burma, writhing under army boots for 45 years now. The military junta, which brazenly calls itself State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has ruled with an iron hand ever since it took over in 1962. It faced its first and only major popular challenge in 1988.

The street rebellion forced the junta to order a general election in 1990. When the polls ended in a landslide win for the National League for Democracy (NLD) under the now-legendary Aung San Suu Kyi, the generals denied recognition to the result and placed Aung San under house arrest, where she stays until today.

Not an overtly political issue, but a doubling of the fuel prices sparked off the latest protests on August 19. The revolt against the increased economic burden, which made it difficult for the ordinary Burmese even to commute to work, received wider attention when 13 leaders of the protesters were arrested. The best-known among them was Min Ko Naing, a popular figure of the 88 Generation Students Group, who had spent 15 years in prison and was released in 2004, only to be jailed last year for another term of four months.

The protests were staged by small clusters of 20 to 200 people, mainly in the capital city of Rangoon (Yangon). By all accounts, the bystanders applauded the protesters but did not dare to join them. In one case, a solitary, 61-year-old man just stood in a public place and shouted slogans calling on the junta to honor the 1990 poll verdict before he was arrested and whisked away. No observer, however, has doubted the breadth and depth of the anti-junta sentiment in the Buddhist country.

In neighboring Bangladesh, the army-backed rulers enjoyed support for their crusade against corruption, according to media accounts relying solely on select segments of public opinion. The myth was shattered on August 21 when a campus rebellion broke out against the army.

The spark was lit when a group of Dhaka University students at a soccer match objected to some on-campus soldiers obstructing their view and were beaten up. The scuffle snowballed into a massive student uprising to demand removal of an army garrison from the university.

The garrison was eventually removed, but the ranks of the rebels had swollen meanwhile. The students, with a sizable number of women among them, were joined by slum-dwellers and street vendors, uprooted earlier in an army "clean-up drive" that equated crowding of pavements with corruption in public office.

The scope of the protests widened soon, with the agitators asking not only for the restoration of campus sanctity, but also for advancement of the date of the general election, reluctantly promised to be held by the end of 2008 in the "roadmap" that the army-backed caretaker regime of Fakhruddin Ahmad announced some time ago. Demonstrators in many places asked also for steps to bring down skyrocketing prices of essential commodities.

In Burma, the protests spread beyond Rangoon, though they never became anything as big as those of 1988. The voice of the Burmese people, however, was heard in several demonstrations of anti-junta solidarity by emigre Burmese in Thailand, South Korea and elsewhere

The spread of the protests in Bangladesh was swifter and wider. The army-propped regime had to place six cities under a day-and-night curfew.

The protests have caused much excitement in both countries, but have not generated blithe optimism about the democratic advance ahead. It is a measure of what military rule does to a people's minds that the protests have created new apprehensions about the political prospects in both the countries.

In Burma, many theories are doing the rounds about why the junta allowed these protests by unarmed rebels to take place at all. One of the theories, mooted by Burmese daily Irrawaddy, is that the fuel price hike and the freedom for brief protests against it were a prelude to privatization of the oil sector.

A more disturbing theory is that the junta wants to use the protests to divert popular attention away from its delay in holding a long-promised national convention for drafting a new and less-repressive constitution. Some observers also see in all this an attempt by some ambitious members of the junta to embarrass their supremo, General Than Shwe.

A widely shared fear in Bangladesh after the student protests is that the power behind the throne may use them to play a less-coy role in the country's affairs. It is by citing domestic disturbances, aided by alien adversaries, that ambitious generals have captured power in Bangladesh as elsewhere. The known fact of growing impatience in the army with the ways of present civilian authorities does nothing to allay such apprehensions.

The junta in Burma must be complimenting itself on quelling the protests so quickly. But, considering the resurfacing of the rebels of 1988 vintage, the staying power of the Burmese struggle for democracy can hardly be underestimated.

In Bangladesh, too, the partial lifting of the curfew in the cities suggests the army's confidence that the protests have been contained. It must, however, be remembered that it took several years after the similar beginning of the movement on the campus against the military regime of General Hossain Mohammad Ershad for democracy to be restored in Bangladesh. Quite a few observers, therefore, see the latest protest has the beginning of a possibly long struggle.

The rebellions in neither of the nations, alas, received more than ritual and rhetorical support from self-proclaimed crusaders for democracy in the world. I must put on record here the anguish of many Indians like me at New Delhi's far from masterly inaction on both fronts.

India, which conferred its highest honor once on Aung San Suu Kyi, now refrains carefully from raising its voice for her release. It does not want to risk the prospects of energy cooperation with Burma, which is rich in oil and gas resources. Nor does it want to do without the junta's support in dealing with the insurgents of India's north east, who have found themselves a haven on Burma's tribal frontiers.

Likewise, New Delhi is meticulously avoiding any but the mildest expression of concern over the detention of former Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, widely regarded as a friend of India. Here, too, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government seems keener on anti-insurgency cooperation with the Bangladesh military.

Army Chief Moeen U Ahmad, who recently ruled out the return of Bangladesh to "elective democracy," was to be given a red carpet reception earlier this month. Only floods in Bangladesh have put off the event that would have fueled anti-India sentiments in that country.


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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