From a saffron protest to a bloodbath in Burma

<a href="">Gayle Allard</a>. Professor. IE Business School

3 December 2007

The Burmese people’s protest against the country’s oppressive military regime ended in a bloodbath. How far are other governments willing to let the situation slide?

The international press called it the "saffron protest". Thousands of Burmese people went out into the streets two weeks ago to demand the end of the regime that has controlled their country for almost half a century. The reference to saffron is because the masses that flooded the streets of the capital city Rangoon were led by thousands of Buddhist monks who walked barefoot, with their shaved heads and their saffron-coloured tunics.

The country, which the military has rechristened as Myanmar (although behind closed doors it is still "Burma" for the democrats) is one of the poorest in the world. There are hardly any cars in the streets. There are not even the mopeds that fill the streets of Vietnam. People travel on buses, vehicles that are so full that passengers often have to hold on from outside, with the risk of falling off. Or they travel by bicycle, often a whole family on one single bike. Or they walk. The mud streets are filled with women, children and men with their longhis, the dress they all wear. All of them on foot.

It is hard to believe that it is possible to live in such poor houses and streets. The monsoon rains flood them with water and the rubbish fills the puddles. The smell is strong. You can sometimes see the occasional rich house behind the trees. When you ask who lives in such a place, they whisper the reply: "the military".

In Yangon, the new name the military has given to Rangoon, the country´s capital city, the exclusive hotel used by tourists is fenced off so that the children and beggars cannot approach the Western people who stay there. But dozens of children wait by the fence and say hello in one of the many broken languages they speak. If you bring them food, six or seven jump up to catch it. But they smile at you. They remember your name and they even give you a small gift if they can when they find out that you are leaving their country.

George Orwell, the British writer, lived in Burma during the colonial period. The Burmese democrats say that Orwell wrote a trilogy on Burma: the first book, Burmese Days, criticised the hypocrisy of the colonial period; the second book, Animal Farm, told the story of how the Socialist militarily became dictators like the pigs in the story; and the last book, 1984, is a parable of the repressive regime under which the Burmese people live. Today, the last two titles are banned in Burma.

What were the monks and their followers asking for in the saffron protest? At first, they were protesting against increases in the price of fuel of up to 500%, which affected the pockets of those who use public transport and increased the inflation from which they all suffer even further. However, the protest soon became a brave and desperate challenge against the repression and poor management of the military junta. They protest against the complete lack of freedom of expression. They protest against the home arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the hero of the independence who won democratic elections almost 20 years ago and who has lived under continuous home arrest since then, including during her husband´s illness and death in the United Kingdom and also after being given the Nobel peace prize. They protest against the torture and killing of democratic rebels and non-Burmese ethnic groups who try to resist the government from their camps along the frontier with Thailand. They protest against the forced labour suffered by women and children. The Burmese people are tired of repression and poverty. They want a change.

The last time they went out into the streets was in 1988, accompanied by monks with the same saffron-coloured dress. The government reacted by killing around 1,000 dissidents and the repression continued. The hopes of it being different this time have faded away. They opened fire with automatic weapons on a peaceful protest. And one member of the military who escaped to Thailand has revealed that, again, there may be thousands of deaths, many of them monks, whose bodies have been piled up in the jungle.

The Burmese who oppose the regime thought that they were not fighting on their own. I was there a few months ago and one told me in a low voice that the situation was about to explode. "We can´t put up with it for much longer. You can help us. We hope that, when we try to change this country, you are there to support us", he told me.

And now they have tried. The sanctions the US imposed against the regime some years ago have not weakened it because China has become its protector and its source of weaponry, together with India. The abundance of natural gas and other natural resources in Burma mean that its neighbours do not want to oppose the junta and that the Western oil companies (the French company Total and the American company Chevron) resist the idea of pressuring them. The United Nations envoy is still waiting in his hotel to be received by the military. So far, there have only been words and they have had no effect.

What are we prepared to do? Will we stand up to China to intervene in favour of the democrats? Will we join them to negotiate and demand that a corrupt and violent regime releases the leader of the opposition, holds democratic elections and allows a change in the country?

Or will we simply watch while another saffron protest ends in a bloodbath in a country that dares to harbour hope through peaceful action and the promise of democracy?


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