BURMA: Dramatic price rises, protests and arrests oblige international response

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has been following with deep concern and interest the tense situation in Burma since last Wednesday, 15 August 2007, when the military government dramatically increased the costs of all vehicle fuels by up to five times the previous level, without prior announcement. The price increases were immediately passed on to passengers on public transport and shortly thereafter the prices of basic food items, including rice, salt and oil, also began to shoot up.

The increasing costs will be incredibly difficult for millions in the country to bear. The majority of people in Burma are already living from day to day, and countless numbers in rural areas are just a step away from starvation. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in June took the remarkable step of publicly chastising the regime for the “immense suffering” it is causing to people in outlying regions. Even in towns and cities, ordinary persons are finding it harder and harder to scrape together a living. Millions more have gone to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the high seas to earn any kind of wage under whatever terms and conditions offered.

So it is not surprising that despite the risks, people have quickly started going to the streets in protest. On August 19 around 500 persons marched some nine kilometres through Rangoon to demand that the price increases be revoked. On August 21 some hundreds more marched, and were this time met by members of the government-organised Swan-arshin: gangs of thugs armed with sticks and slingshots acting as proxies for the security forces, about which the AHRC has raised the alarm in a number of recent statement and appeals. As on the previous occasion, plainclothes police and intelligence officers stood on the sidelines and took photographs and video footage of the marchers.

On the night of August 21, dozens of persons who had led the protests were reportedly arrested at their houses. Many are veterans of the historic 1988 uprising who had been released from prison only in recent years. According to an article in the state media that appeared to have been written even before or during the operation, they had been taken into custody and were being interrogated for attempting to disrupt the national convention to write a new constitution, which has been running since 1994. Perversely, the article blamed the detainees for provoking the public by “taking advantage” of the increased fuel prices. Meanwhile, special branch police were reportedly waiting outside the houses of other persons to arrest them if they attempted to go on the streets.

But in a sign of the extent to which the government has forced its people into a showdown despite the arrests, a further protest went ahead as planned today, August 22. According to reports coming in from Rangoon, a group of at least 300, most women, again marched for two hours before being blocked around midday local time by Swan-arshin, who forced seven of them into vehicles and drove them away. Again the demonstrators were reportedly met by cheers and applause from onlookers. Two Buddhist monks involved in the protests were also said to have been forced into a vehicle and driven away from a separate location.

According to a separate item on the Delhi-based Mizzima news website, a previously unknown group has warned that the price hike is part of a deliberate strategy by the regime to provoke a confrontation with the public and launch a new crackdown. The group reportedly warned people not to fall into a trap by protesting.

But when people’s day-to-day lives are so grievously affected by the actions of the state as in Burma today, what are they to do if not protest? How much longer are they supposed to bear its iniquities? What should they do instead? The extent to which the demonstrators’ courageous steps are the surface manifestation of far-reaching and deep anger and frustration can be seen by the waving, cheering and tooting car horns in support by passers-by, despite the presence of intelligence and security officials. Indeed, from the accounts of onlookers, many if not most of the protestors have not been hardened activists but ordinary persons who have seen the others walking and spontaneously joined.

The AHRC has since the 1990s pointed to the direct links between Burma’s militarisation and its impoverishment. Today it is more militarised and impoverished than ever. It is also probably closer to the sort of conditions that existed prior to the 1988 uprising than at any other time in the last decade. Whether or not the army has a strategy to provoke protest, once begun, public actions take on a life of their own: they are no one’s to control and determine, least of all the generals. The defeat of the dictatorial monarchy in Nepal last year after massive street protests occurred with a speed and in a manner that no one had predicted; the expectations of the army there that it too could control the situation proved completely unfounded. Likewise, the recent huge outpouring of support for the chief justice of Pakistan in his battle against yet another Asian military dictatorship took everyone by surprise, not least of all, its president-cum-army commander. So too is Burma now full of both uncertainty and possibility.

The Asian Human Rights Commission today expresses its loud and unequivocal solidarity with the people of Burma. It calls on them to be aware that their suffering and struggle are known to the outside world: unlike twenty years ago, their protests will not be too little heard until it is too late. What happens in Rangoon, Mandalay, Pegu, Taunggyi, Bassein, Moulmein or Myitkyina is now known within minutes throughout the world. The AHRC will for its part do all it can to document, report and advocate on these events as quickly and widely as possible.

The AHRC also especially calls upon the United Nations, in particular its secretary general, world leaders and all concerned persons throughout the world to take this opportunity to speak and act vigorously in support of the people of Burma, who have been forced to put up with too much for far too long. The time for diplomatic niceties and talk about acknowledging pretended steps towards reform is gone. In fact, it was long gone, but the latest extraordinary price increases, threats to the livelihoods of millions throughout the country, ongoing military offensives against entire populations in outlying regions, shutdown of the ICRC operations and arrests and detentions of persons who have done nothing more than walk down a street to say that they can’t afford to pay for the junta’s incompetence and mismanagement surely demand an unequivocal and lasting international response. The victory of the people of Nepal against their dictatorship was due in large part to the concern and direct interventions of the global community: will it not do as much for the fifty millions in Burma?

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-197-2007
Countries : Burma (Myanmar),
Campaigns : Burma Peoples Protests