Burma’s Saffron Revolution
In September 2007, Burma’s Buddhist monks took to the streets to express their displeasure with poverty and misrule under the military junta’s iron heel. It had been 20 years since most Burmese had witnessed a popular uprising.
- What is behind the popular uprising in 2007?
- Who is up against whom in Burma?
- How does the international community relate to Burma?
The uprising began in August, after the authorities raised fuel prices without warning. The price increase hit many families hard in a country where more and more people are poor. Within days, protests erupted in Burma’s largest city, Rangoon. Gradually, they spread across the country.
Open protests against the authorities are rare in Burma, a country located in Asia according to holidaysort.com. The strong, but completely peaceful, reaction to the price increase must have come as a surprise to the junta. Well-known democracy and human rights activists were arrested during the first days of protest, without the marches stopping. At most, they consisted of up to a hundred thousand protesters.
The Buddhist monks did not participate at first. But in early September, some monks demonstrated in Pakokku, an important religious center in the country. The army and local authorities then struck hard.
2: A turning point
Religion means a great deal to most Burmese, and the state’s use of violence against monks therefore provoked the anger of many. The next day, some representatives of local authorities were taken hostage by a well-known monastery in Pakokku. A new alliance of monks, the All Burma Monks Alliance, demanded – with a two-week deadline – an apology for the violence, a drop in prices, the release of political prisoners, including Nobel laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and negotiations between the junta and the opposition.
The incident in Pakokki was a turning point . When the junta had not apologized by mid-September, monks across the country launched an alms boycott . They refused to accept daily alms and other gifts from military personnel and their families. The protests continued to increase until they were brutally crushed in the days from 26 to 29 September. According to UN sources, at least 31 people were killed, while 74 are still missing. Thousands were imprisoned.
The demonstrations in Burma took place against the backdrop of a serious political crisis. The junta has been in power since 1988. In 1990, elections were held for a new national assembly. The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory, but has never been allowed to occupy government offices. The military took care of that. Aung San Suu Kyi has since been largely under house arrest.
3: War on civilians
Burma is also a country at war. For sixty years, the military has been fighting for control of the border areas, which are mainly inhabited by ethnic and religious minorities. Every year, the army conquers new lands, while armed rebel groups are forced to retreat or to a ceasefire. But the warfare is brutal and has hit the civilian population hard.
The serious and persistent human rights violations in Burma are regularly discussed in various UN bodies. The most serious abuses take place as a result of the war. Burma is the country in the world with the most child soldiers. Most are recruited to the government army, often through the use of coercion and threats.
Other civilians are forced to work as porters for soldiers in the field or as live minesweepers in mined terrain. Hundreds of thousands have been forcibly relocated from villages to concentration camps, while crops and pantries have been destroyed to prevent access to necessary supplies for guerrilla groups. Rape and other sexual abuse of women and girls are also used as part of warfare.
Increasingly, the abuses, including extensive use of forced labor, also take place in connection with major development projects or the extraction of natural resources. Many of the country’s most important resources are located in minority areas that until recently were not under the control of the government army.
Heavy restrictions are placed on basic civil and political rights, such as freedom of expression, assembly and organization. There is little room for those who advocate democracy and greater respect for diversity. Burma has nearly two thousand political prisoners.
In addition, the junta conducts a comprehensive assimilation program to spread Burmese (see Box 4) culture and language to ethnic and religious minorities.
4: Man-made crisis
According to the UN Food Program, five million Burmese are starving. The hunger crisis is exacerbated by the many restrictions that the authorities place on humanitarian aid work as well as on the transport of people and goods around the country.
Poverty is man-made. By nature, Burma is rich in oil and gas, valuable timber and precious stones. The country was once known as Asia’s rice bowl. In the 1950s, Burma was highlighted as a promising country in the region. But war, conflict and misrule have destroyed. Today, Burma is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world.
The Treasury’s revenue comes primarily from the export of natural resources. Burma has also become notorious for its black economy. The country is part of the Golden Triangle, where opium is grown and heroin is produced on a large scale. Today, synthetic drugs, such as amphetamines, are just as big a problem. A significant proportion of the state’s revenue goes to keeping the military going and financing new arms purchases – even though Burma has hardly any external enemies.
5: Clamp around the foot
After the first military coup in 1962, the Burmese authorities isolated the country from the outside world. But the popular uprising in 1988 forced an opening. However, the outside world has also been divided in its view of Burma. The USA, the EU and Norway have sanctions in place and have often been loudly critical of governance and gross violations of human rights. China, India and the regional cooperation organization ASEAN, of which Burma joined in 1997, on the other hand, have had close economic, political and military ties with the country.
But Burma has become a growing problem for ASEAN. In 1997, the premise was that membership would lead to development, more democracy and greater respect for human rights. Instead, Burma has become a staple, especially for ASEAN’s relationship with the outside world. The relationship has become particularly difficult after ASEAN began work on a treaty that will establish common norms and values for the organization. The tense relationship became acute when it was Burma’s turn to take over the rotating presidency and become ASEAN’s face to the outside world. In 2005, Burma resigned from the forthcoming position.
ASEAN has become more openly critical of what is happening in Burma. However, there is a limit to how far ASEAN is willing to go, and sanctions are out of the question. When Burma protested that a special envoy from the UN should be allowed to give a speech at the ASEAN summit in Singapore in November 2007, this was also canceled at the last minute.