Is Burma Poised on the Edge Of '88-Style Army Crackdown?

A series of student demonstrations - which eerily resembled events leading up to 1988, when thousands of pro-democracy protesters were killed by the military, has some observers in Burma concerned that history may be repeating itself.

The protests by hundreds of students in the capital, Rangoon (or Yangon, as it is called now), have alarmed the country's military rulers, who responded with a show of force and the arrest of one of the country's leading pro-democracy activists.

The current crackdown began after two nights of demonstrations that were sparked by the severe beating of three students by police on Oct. 20. The military has since sent armed soldiers near the capital's main colleges to prevent further protests.

"It's as tense in Burma as it has been since 1988," says a diplomat here, citing the student demonstrations as well as the ongoing crackdown against the National League for Democracy (NLD), Burma's main pro-democracy party led by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Both the government, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), and members of the NLD were keen to play down the importance of the previous week's events and the most visible challenge to SLORC in recent years.

"There's no fear that the student demonstrations might get out of hand," said Kyi Maung, one of the NLD's top leaders who was detained and accused of colluding with the students to foment unrest. "I don't take the point of view that the events of 1988 are being repeated," he told the Monitor a day after his release. The NLD was also quick to disassociate itself from the students, denying any involvement with the demonstrations. "The students are working for their own cause," explains Tin Oo, another NLD leader. "The NLD is very concerned to maintain peace and tranquility. Violence and disturbances won't solve our problems."

But the parallels to 1988 are still striking. That year, antigovernment demonstrations were sparked by a tea shop brawl involving Rangoon students. The police's heavy-handed response triggered student demonstrations, which were later joined in by hundreds of thousands of ordinary Burmese.

As in 1988, last week's events were also sparked by a student brawl, this one involving an altercation near the Yangon Institute of Technology. Three YIT students were taken into custody and beaten, provoking student demonstrations and a demand that the government apologize.

Surprisingly, SLORC responded with an apology of sorts. But the wishy-washy wording - which said police "were discordant in relations" - had students on the street again the following evening. More worrisome for the government were reports that residents of the nearby working-class district of Oakkyin were joining the protests.

With the carrot failing to appease the students, SLORC reverted to the stick. In addition to stationing the 30 troop trucks near the colleges, eyewitnesses said that five rows of soldiers, guns drawn, were stationed close by in order to prevent any marches.

Coupled with the student demonstrations have been further jolts to Burma's creaking economy. In 1988, the protests were fueled by general disgust with the government's economic mismanagement. Over the past four months, Burmese have witnessed a sharp drop in the value of the national currency, the kyat. And although the price of gasoline has stabilized after doubling last month, subsequent price hikes for basic commodities and an inflation rate estimated at an annual 30 to 40 percent are making it difficult for many here to pay for essentials.

"The cost of living is getting out of hand," Mr. Maung says. "There's a lot of discontent, especially in the rural areas...."

But whether the sparks that lit up the country in 1988 will rekindle a similar conflagration in the near term remains questionable. Explains one local observer: "Nineteen eighty-eight, in a nutshell, was a slow burn ... We have the same ingredients now. I don't expect anything right away, but there's now an edge to the situation that wasn't here before."

Others point out that the situation has changed dramatically from 1988. Despite the current economic problems, some Burmese appear to have benefited from the government's recent market reforms. Burma has also come under closer scrutiny from the international community, which would likely respond in a more forceful manner than it did in 1988 to any similar uprising.

But it is the massacres of 1988 that still trouble Burma. They in part explain the NLD's arms-length attitude toward the student demonstrators as well as SLORC's subsequent decision to lower tempers by releasing Maung and lifting the barricades.

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