By THE IRRAWADDY
On the third anniversary of the violent suppression of the “Saffron Revolution,” the international community should consider taking immediate concerted and focused actions to secure the human rights, dignity and future of Burma's 54 million people.
Three years ago, Buddhist monks overturned their alms bowls during their morning rounds of the streets of Burma's old capital, Rangoon, and other principal cities and refused to receive offerings from the Burmese ruling generals and their families—historically seen as an act of defiance.
Thus began the protests that came to be known as the “Saffron Revolution”—which reached its climax on Sept 27, when troops put a violent end to the monk-led demonstrations.
The outside world hasn't forgotten the blood-stained anniversary. But neither has the regime—shortly after midnight on Monday, a cyber attack was launched against the Web sites of activist movements and of media organizations, including The Irrawaddy. The exiled media is now accustomed to these crude displays of censorship, which fail to silence the voices of freedom for very long.
The immediate cause of the Sept. 2007 protests was a sudden, government-ordered cut in fuel subsidies, which increased the price of gasoline by as much as 500 percent overnight and led to a spike in the cost of food and other necessities.
The price rises sparked demonstrations that were initially led by a charismatic political group, the 88 Generation Students. The junta cracked down on the movement by arresting many demonstrators, including 13 prominent leaders such as Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Min Zeya, Jimmy, Pyone Cho, Arnt Bwe Kyaw and Mya Aye.
On September 5, 2007, Burmese troops forcibly broke up a peaceful demonstration by Buddhist monks in Pakokku, injuring three monks.
The society of Buddhist monks, the Sangha, demanded an apology by the regime, setting a deadline of Sept. 17. The junta refused, and the monks began their protest, taking to the streets of major cities. Soon they were joined by pro-democracy activists, nuns and local residents.
Within a few days, thousands of demonstrators from all walks of life were pouring onto streets across Burma, demanding political and economic reforms from the military government.
The ruling generals responded by sending soldiers on nighttime raids of dozens of monasteries. Eyewitnesses reported that monks were beaten and arrested.
Despite the raids, hundreds of thousands of Rangoon residents, led by monks, took to the streets of Rangoon on Sept. 27, again demanding political and economic reforms.
The regime response was again a violent one. Soldiers opened fire on the crowds, killing at least nine unarmed protesters. A Japanese photojournalist, Kenji Nagai, also died in the gunfire, his death captured on video and beamed around the world.
The September 2007 peaceful protests and the violent crackdown created new dynamics inside Burma. The country's young, technologically advanced generation acquired a role as publishers of text, audio, and video files illustrating the brutal events within their country.
Suddenly, Burma was attracting the full attention of such international media as the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera. Condemnation of the regime’s suppression of the protests followed from regional and international governments.
Under the increasing pressure, the head of Burma’s military junta, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, announced in March 2008 that he would allow a civilian government to assume control of the country after a general election.
In present-day Burma, however, all segments of the population have grown hostile to the regime, and the country’s future is still unknown, just weeks ahead of the election, slated to take place on Nov. 7.
The reason for the continued unpopularity of the government is clear—the abuses committed by the junta haven't ceased during the past three years. Oppression of pro-democracy activists continues.
The level of fear, but also anger, among the general population remains unprecedented, fueled by actions taken against religious leaders and also the government indifference to the plight of survivors of the 2008 Cyclone Nargis.
Meanwhile, Burmese jails still hold more than 2,200 political prisoners, including 256 monks and six nuns—more than double the number imprisoned before the 2007 protests.
The junta has sentenced more than 230 political detainees to lengthy prison sentences, some as long as 68 years, for their leadership roles in the “Saffron Revolution.” In effect, the Burmese junta is mocking the UN Security Council, which issued a statement in Oct. 2007 calling for the release of all political prisoners, including Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest. Despite the regime's indifference, the Security Council has taken no action.
International attention in recent months has focused on the power-play between the military and the government’s proxy parties on the one hand and the armed ethnic minority groups, the National League for Democracy, and a small number of new opposition parties on the other, according to Amnesty International.
In a statement on the third anniversary of the violent crackdown on the “Saffron Revolution,” Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Burma researcher, said: “While the international community, including Burma’s Asean neighbours, has been calling for free, fair and inclusive elections there, the plight of thousands of political prisoners has been overlooked.”
The political prisoners are being punished merely for peacefully exercising their rights to free expression, assembly and association. Without their voice, peace, human rights and democracy in Burma are meaningless.
The lives, human rights, dignity and future of Burma’s 54 million people require immediate concerted and focused commitment and actions from the international community.
By THE IRRAWADDY