Burma's crackdown on dissidents draws world attention

US officials call for a UN Security Council meeting following the arrest of activists protesting fuel price hikes.

For more than two weeks Burma (Myanmar) has seen a series of small, but unprecedented protests. Observers say the continuing unrest, despite government arrests and other pressures to end demonstrations, is a remarkable step for the strongly repressed country. The public discord began when the government doubled the cost of gasoline and diesel. The government's extreme reaction to the small protests has elicited sharp criticism from US officials and caused others to call for United Nations intervention.

According to the government opposition party, the National League for Democracy, more than 100 protesters were arrested last week after the demonstrations, reports the Voice of America. Meanwhile undercover police officers and pro-military gangs are reported to be patrolling the streets to prevent further protests.

Burmese authorities are distributing the names and photographs of activists wanted by police for their participation in a rare string of anti-government protests.
The military-run government has ordered local officials and the public to be on the look-out for the activists. Many of the protesters have gone into hiding.

In the face of the Burmese government's crackdown, President Bush has spoken out in favor of the protesters' freedom of expression reports the British Broadcasting Corporation. He called on government officials to "stop its intimidation of those Burmese citizens who are promoting democracy and human rights."

"I strongly condemn the ongoing actions of the Burmese regime in arresting, harassing, and assaulting pro-democracy activists for organising or participating in peaceful demonstrations," Mr Bush said.
"These activists were voicing concerns about recent dramatic increases in the price of fuel, and their concerns should be listened to by the regime rather than silenced through force."

US State Department officials also echoed the Mr. Bush's sentiments. Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman said he was "concerned about the safety and well being of any of the political prisoners being held by the Burmese government." Agence France Presse reports that Mr. Casey went on to cite human rights reports that noted the conditions in Burma's prisons that were "not good."

"But again, the main point is these people shouldn't be in jail in the first place," Casey said.
"These are individuals trying to peacefully express their political views, who are being detained by a regime that seems continually intent on keeping people from being able to participate in the political life of their country," he said.

Despite the government pressures to end open forms of political expression, leaflets calling for people to bang pots and pans together in their home at set times as a means of protest have begun circulating throughout the country, reports The Irrawaddy, a magazine run by Burmese dissidents from inside Thailand.

Leaflets obtained by The Irrawaddy call on households to create a din on the evenings of September 11, 12 and 13 by banging pots, pans and other metal items. The action will have a mystical as well as a political purpose—"The time has now come to drive away evil from your homes by creating a din by beating any products made with tin, metal and steel," the pamphlet says.
Among the bad influences to be dispersed by the noise campaign, says the pamphlet, are: "natural disasters [flooding throughout the country], economic decline, arbitrary detentions, the greedy ruling government oppressing their people, the people in helpless situation, disunity among the people due to the evil spirits, thugs beating good citizens, scarcity of food and needy materials among Buddhist monks, other religious people being oppressed and the evils living at Naypyidaw."
The campaign is thought likely to attract a lot of support because of its anonymous, after-dark nature, but also on account of its astrological context. Sources told The Irrawaddy that the "pots and pans appeal" was being distributed by mobile phone, email and internet Web sites.

An editorial in the Boston Globe has condemned the UN's silence on the situation in Burma. The piece argued that the international body cannot continue to ignore the government-sponsored violence taking place in the troubled Asian nation. Comparing the UN's current inaction to its behavior during the Rwandan genocide, the editorial argued the organization should "feel a moral obligation not to repeat that tragic lapse of solidarity with victims of state-sponsored violence."

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and his special envoy for Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, have had two months to reflect on a June warning about Burma sounded by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Not since it denounced the Rwanda genocide of 1994 has the Red Cross issued such a public condemnation of a government's behavior.
The junta has destroyed more villages in areas inhabited by ethnic minorities than have been razed in Darfur. Its partnership in the narcotics trade has helped spread addiction and HIV/AIDS infection to Burma's neighbors. The army's brutal conscription of forced labor has drawn sanctions from the International Labor Organization. Yet when the Red Cross asked to deliver humanitarian assistance to the victims, or even to engage in dialogue with the military rulers about such assistance, the junta rebuffed its requests.

In an opinion piece for Scoop, an independent publication in New Zealand, freelance journalist and peace activist J. Sri Raman writes that though the protests have excited people, they have not "generated blithe optimism about the democratic advance ahead." He speculates as to why the government allowed the protests to take place at all.

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.
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