Between 25-50,000 monks and nuns have defied the ruling military junta and continued protests against the regime. The authorities have so far reacted gingerly to the marchers, allowing them to protest relatively unhindered. However, the possibilities for a peaceful resolution to the crisis are narrowing and violence appears likely:
- In the first sign of a government crackdown, the army has been positioned outside Rangoon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, the country’s holiest shrine and symbolic focal point for the campaign against the military junta. Riot police have also been placed on the streets of the former capital.
- Tension in Myanmar rose further today when the military junta clarified its threat to 'take action' against the protesters by warning the marches could be 'dispersed by military force'.
- Burma Campaign UK claims that troops are infiltrating the marchers disguised as monks and plan to spark violence thereby justifying a crackdown.
- Despite fears of military retaliation, the protests show no signs of abating. If the marches continue to increase in number at their current rate the situation could reach a ‘tipping point’ very quickly.
- Ruling out the possibility of compromise, the Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks, the organisation leading the protests, has vowed to continue marching until it has 'wiped the military dictatorship from the land'.
Small scale protests were sparked last month when the regime doubled fuel prices. Monks began spearheading the campaign after authorities refused to apologise for violently confronting a number of those marching. This galvanized the protests, which have escalated in just over a week, from minor protests to a mass movement.
Monks and nuns, now joined by students, members of the pro-democracy National League for Democracy and other civilians marched through twenty five cities on Monday with crowds of at least 50,000 in the former capital Rangoon, constituting the largest demonstrations in Myanmar since the uprising of 1988.
Reflecting the deepening politicization of the protests, on Saturday marchers reached the house where the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is under house arrest. Though subsequent attempts have been prevented, the demonstrators have started handing out photos of Suu Kyi’s father, the Burmese independence hero Aung San. Others have begun chanting 'democracy' and carrying flags used in previous uprisings.
Defying the head of the country’s official Buddhist organization which issued a directive on Monday ordering monks to stick to learning and propagating the faith, the marchers have explicitly identified their protests with the beleaguered democracy movement, throwing down the gauntlet to the regime.
If the military does respond in a heavy-handed manner, fears are not unfounded that the denouement of this crisis could be far worse than that which followed the uprising of 1988, when an estimated 3,000 students were killed. Attacking monks in a country where almost every family sends a son to the monastery would be tantamount to pouring oil on a fire.
Andrew Legon is a Research Associate with the Asian Programme in the International Security Studies Department at RUSI. He is contactable at email@example.com
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.