Protests continued unabated in Myanmar for their tenth consecutive day, undeterred by the continued violent crackdown of the junta. There are no signs the anti-junta protests have run their course. Nor are there signs which indicate the military government will listen to mounting international calls to solve the crisis peacefully, including the first public comment from China urging restraint. An escalation of violence and bloodshed looks certain, with the next two days crucial to the development of this crisis:
• It seems fair to assume people will be back on the streets tomorrow in large if not greater numbers. Leaflets have been distributed throughout Yangon urging civilians to show solidarity with the monks.
• It is clear from the crowds of laypeople who have taken up the mantle of the Buddhist monks, that violence against the latter has antagonised the population. About 1,000 people in South Okkalapa (on the outskirts of Yangon), reportedly outraged at the raid of a nearby monastery and attack of a number of monks attacked an army truck. The emergence of such martyrs could stoke public anger against the regime and escalate the violence.
• The military will undoubtedly intensify its violent crackdown still further as protests continue in defiance of current tactics. Military and police presence on the streets is reported to be more substantial then Wednesday. Fears that the junta will repeat its massacre of demonstrators in 1988 are not unfounded.
• Misgivings about firing on monks and nuns mean that bloodshed is likely to be much higher in the next few days if the composition of the crowds continues to include more laypeople and fewer clergy.
• If the military does decide to crack down further, claims that troops are infiltrating the marchers disguised as monks could be used to spark a massacre.
• 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”.
• In a sign the crisis is spiraling out of control the Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic insurgency group, threw its support behind the monks and urged 17 ethnic rebel groups that have signed ceasefires with the junta to unite in opposing the government. This could overstretch the junta as troops were moved from these regions to the former capital to deal with the protesters. The junta’s priority will be to retain control of the main cities which suggests this is an opportunity for insurgent groups to gain the upper hand.
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. What began as economic protests politicised late last week, constituting the gravest challenge to the regime in nearly two decades. 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 organisation 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.
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 100,000 in the former capital Yangon. In recent days crowds have been less, but on Thursday an estimated 10,000 laymen gathered near the Sule Pagoda, a flashpoint for the past 10 days of protests. It is estimated that as many as 70,000 spontaneously swelled onto the streets in other parts of Yangon singing nationalist songs and hurling abuse at the soldiers driving by in trucks. Large protests also took place elsewhere in the country, at Mandalay and Sittwe.
In contrast to previous days, laypeople have largely replaced the columns of saffron coloured monks after (and in response to) a regime clampdown on the clergy during Wednesday night and Thursday morning. Reports suggest overnight raids were conducted on at least six monasteries believed to be hotbeds of pro-democracy dissent. Monks were beaten, attacked and herded into military trucks. Soldiers camped outside monasteries prevented large numbers from leaving.
The recent chaos comes after the junta began a violent crackdown on Wednesday in which five people were reported to have been killed and many more injured. Further deaths were reported Thursday, including one Japanese reporter as the regime intensified its crackdown in an attempt to regain control. Security forces fired tear gas and warning shots near or at crowds of protests, swept through Yangon's city centre beating and arresting hundreds of people. They warned of further ‘extreme action’.
The stage is set therefore, for further clashes, chaos and violence.
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.