Protest demonstrations in the Burmese capital of Yangon (Rangoon) took a turn for the worse on Wednesday when soldiers of the ruling military government began wide scale arrests of monks and others, and began to use brute force to put down demonstrations that have been ongoing in the country for more than ten days. Known as the Republic of Myanmar since the army took over and declared martial law in 1988, the country has become one of the most oppressed and isolated countries in the world; second only perhaps to North Korea and possibly Iran.
The wave of protests, are the largest since the failed uprising in the late 1980’s. Led by National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1988 uprising was forcefully put down by force. Ms. Suu Kyi, who later won the Nobel Prize for her efforts toward peaceful opposition to military rule; has been under house arrest for most of the 18+ years since her party won a sweeping political victory in 1990. Not only were she and other NLD party members never allowed to hold office, she was denied travel to Oslo Norway to collect her prize.
The recent demonstrations have resulted partially from a series of economic and social problems on behalf of the ruling junta.
The protests in Yangon, were first initiated by Buddhist monks, who have suffered immensely under the brutal military regime. Their large numbers on the streets of Yangon were soon joined by ordinary citizens whose chants and written slogans said that they had all had enough of military rule and are now demanding their rightful opportunity to participate in the running of their country’s affairs.
After keeping a low profile for more than a week, the army finally began to take a much firmer stand, and began arresting people and shooting at them with tear gas. Soldiers also broke into several monasteries and began to arrest and beat up monks, many of whom were taken away in military vehicles to unknown destinations. The mood on Thursday became even uglier, when soldiers began firing heavy amounts of tear gas, as well as live ammunition into the still protesting crowds. Although the junta had been successful in preventing most of the monks from continuing their protest, large numbers of private citizens were out on the streets, and were hit by more tear gas and live ammunition. At least 9 people were reported by witnesses to have been killed by gunfire, including a member of the Japanese press corps stationed in Yangon.
The entire affair has escalated into an international crises; and the U.N. is sending special envoys to Yangon to try to mediate in the affair. In the 1988 uprising, more than 3,000 people were reported killed by troops firing into demonstrating crowds. In the severe crackdown that followed, thousands more were taken away to detention camps; and many were never heard from again. While the rule of the military junta has not been as bad as the genocidal nightmare of the Pol Pot led Khmer Rogue regime in Cambodia during the 1970’s, it still ranks as one of the most oppressive; and has literally isolated this former British colony from the rest of the Free World. I say ‘free world’ since the only real allies of this beautiful S.E. Asian country are countries like China and North Korea. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi became world famous during the former uprising for her non-violent stand against the military; who never let her and her NLD party cronies take over leadership, despite her resounding victory in the last held free elections. Many of her countrymen managed to escape Burma and are now languishing in refugee camps in Thailand, which shares a large eastern border with Myanmar.
Unless some immediate and tough intervention is made by either the U.N. or by neighboring countries like India or Thailand, the result of this latest uprising will no doubt be as bad or worse as the one in 1988. The moral we can all learn from this sad and unfortunate episode is that personal freedom and democracy must never be taken for granted. For one day, it could be lost; as it was in this beautiful land made immortal by books by authors such as Josef Konrad; whose literary works such as Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim are still being read and enjoyed today. The kind, gentle Burmese people portrayed in these books deserve better than what they are having to endure in this country of golden Buddhist shrines, elephants, and teak forests.