A rare burst of street protests in military-ruled Burma (Myanmar) has shone a spotlight on an emboldened network of young democracy activists who came of age during a popular uprising in 1988.
As authorities try to quell dissent after a week of almost daily rallies over rising fuel prices, some observers are drawing parallels with 1988, when economic grievances swelled into a pro-democracy movement. Memories of the bloody repression that followed have so far kept all but a few from joining the current protests, though.
For now, the flurry of dissent has yet to coalesce into a serious challenge to the military, which has ruled in various guises since a coup in 1962. But the rising cost of fuel and other commodities in a country that can barely feed its people despite ample natural resources – including large gas fields – could stir further unrest.
"If something happens, it will be because of economic reasons, not political reasons, because people don't have food on the table. That's the only scenario to see protests all over the country at the same time," says Aung Naing Oo, an exiled Burmese activist turned analyst in Thailand.
The former capital of Yangon, where the protests began last Sunday, was quiet Monday following a government crackdown. A small protest against the cost of fuel was held in another city, Bago, Reuters reported. Dozens of activists have already been detained and may face sedition charges that carry sentences of up to 20 years
Among those arrested was Min Ko Naing, a prominent student leader who spent 16 years in jail before his release in 2004. Since then, he has forged a network of activists known as the '88 Generation Students. The group has begun to test the state's tolerance for civil disobedience, while keeping its distance from the political stalemate between the junta and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by detained Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
"The '88 students have been walking a fine line and continuing to take positions on social issues ... they've always tried to stay out of politics and reflect concerns for what actually has an impact on people," says a UN official in Burma.
The catalyst for the protests: fuel prices
The spark for a broader campaign came on Aug. 15, when authorities abruptly slashed fuel subsidies, pushing up pump prices by 100 percent and forcing private bus operators to raise fares. As popular frustrations began to boil over, student activists led peaceful protests in Yangon that attracted hundreds of people in a show of defiance against the military. The regime responded by arresting leaders and mobilizing thugs to attack demonstrators, according to exiled Burmese activists interviewed for this article and reporters in Burma.
No immediate reason was given for the fuel hike, the first such increase since 2005. Some exiled Burmese observers have claimed that it could be a step toward privatizing oil and gas distribution, or a deliberate trap set to snare the '88 Generation. Other explanations have turned on the expense of building a new capital from scratch in central Burma, complete with its own airport, telecommunications network, and lavish homes for the ruling generals.
Economic incompetence is also a possible reason. Prior to the tumultuous events of 1988, the previous junta stopped accepting bank notes of certain denominations for numerological reasons, wiping out the savings of millions of Burmese.
Tensions over fuel prices come as the regime puts the final touches on a long-promised constitution that would, if adopted, give the military a commanding voice in a nominally civilian government. In July, a handpicked assembly was told to complete its work within two months, a move that the regime says would pave the way for a referendum on the proposed constitution and the election of a new government.
Some political activists say this push to approve the regime's charter is a factor driving people to voice their anger. "People know that if they don't speak out, this situation will last longer. The military is rushing ahead with the national convention and the constitution. This will make the military in power forever," says Soe Aung, a spokesman for the National Council for the Union of Burma, an opposition group based in Thailand.
The US has long sought to isolate Burma and force its rulers to share power with its political opponents, who won an election in 1990. But firm support from Asian neighbors, including China, a key ally, has enabled the regime to thumb its nose at Western critics.
Undeterred by jail, '88 activists still heady
By organizing fuel protests, the '88 Generation have defied their former jailers, who may have hoped the activists would prove less antagonistic after their time in jail, says Aung Naing Oo, the former activist. By contrast, the NLD has played a largely passive role as it focuses on the political arena and the fate of Ms. Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest since a violent crackdown on the party in 2003. But some NLD protesters have also been detained.
That attack was led by armed militiamen of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a pro-regime group. Members of this group also acted as auxiliary plainclothes police units to suppress the latest fuel protests ,according to news reports. "The regime is getting smarter than in 1988.... they're using the USDA and other government vigilantes to stop demonstrations. This is dangerous in my opinion, as they have no discipline or concern for the people," says Soe Aung.
This threat of violence, and memories of mass bloodshed in 1988, when the regime fired on unarmed protesters, remains palpable. This fear has kept the rallies in the low hundreds and dissuaded sympathetic onlookers from joining. "The cost of confrontation isn't theoretical. It's one that the people know," says the UN official.