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Democracy protesters killed in Myanmar

By Nicole Colson | October 5, 2007 | Page 16

THE FUTURE of Myanmar (also known as Burma) is on the line following a brutal crackdown by government forces against pro-democracy protests.

The situation remained tense as Socialist Worker went to press after days of street clashes in two of the country's largest cities. Government soldiers beat and dragged protesters off the streets, and fired tear gas and automatic weapons indiscriminately into large crowds of protesters, reportedly killing hundreds and possibly thousands.

The government also cut off Internet access, in an attempt to stop the flow of information out of the country. According to Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association, military forces raided several Yangon (Rangoon) hotels to check the IDs of foreign journalists and shut down privately owned newspapers that refused to print government propaganda.

The large demonstrations led by Buddhist monks against Myanmar's military government had grown over the course of more than a week to include as many as 100,000 people.

Troops began occupying monasteries in an effort to keep the monks from appearing on the streets, and ruthlessly attacked smaller demonstrations. In Yangon on September 28, for example, witnesses said that 20 trucks filled with soldiers threatened a rally of about 2,000 people by announcing over a loudspeaker: "We give you 10 minutes to move out from the road. Otherwise, we will fire." Many protesters were beaten and dragged away.

Outrage at the crackdown spread internationally, particularly after the killing of Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai as he covered a military assault on protesters. Video of Nagai's death shows a soldier running up behind the photographer and pushing him to the ground, before shooting him.

As of September 28, the government reported that 10 people had been killed, but human rights groups say the number of dead is certainly many times higher.

"The crackdown appears to have terrified people enough to stay out of the streets," Shari Villarosa, the chief representative of the U.S.--which does not have diplomatic relations with the country--in Myanmar told the New York Times. According to Villarosa, some monasteries appeared to be deserted and "one can only wonder what has happened to all the monks."

The answer may have come as Socialist Worker went to press--Hla Win, a former intelligence officer for the military government, told a reporter from Britain's Daily Mail that thousands of protesters and monks have been summarily executed, and their bodies dumped in the jungle. "I decided to desert when I was ordered to raid two monasteries and force several hundred monks onto trucks," said Win. "They were to be killed and their bodies dumped deep inside the jungle. I refused to participate in this."

A Swedish diplomat, Liselotte Argerlid, who visited the country during the protests, told the Daily Mail that she believed "[t]he military regime won, and a new generation has been violently repressed and violently denied democracy...[T]he result may very well be that the regime will enjoy another 20 years of silence, ruling by fear."

But others believe the protests may not be finished. "The military's violent response took the lid off the anger and pent-up frustration that has accumulated over the past 19 years," Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst based in Thailand, told the New York Times, "and it will be difficult for the military administration to put things back in order."

Though some analysts speculated that the military might be able to form an alliance with the clergy or civilian elements, most believe that the discontent will continue. "Burma is the most militarized country in the world," David Steinberg, director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, recently told the Toronto Star. "All power is centralized and personalized. It's difficult to see the junta compromising, and some kind of civil-military partnership coming about."

In any event, the democracy protests were the biggest challenge to the government's authority since the military took control 19 years ago--and proof that the army's brutal rule over decades has not succeeded in squashing resistance.

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BURMA, A one-time British colony later occupied by Japan, became independent in 1948. In 1962, a military coup instituted one-party rule under General Ne Win, who nationalized the economy and banned the independent press under the claim of instituting a claimed "Burmese way to socialism."

In 1987, anti-government riots followed a currency devaluation that wiped out the savings of ordinary Burmese. Over the next two years, thousands were killed by the regime during protests led by students and intellectuals.

The government formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council, which declared martial law in 1989 and arrested thousands of pro-democracy and human rights demonstrators. The same year, the country was renamed Myanmar, and Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, was put under house arrest. When the NLD won a landslide victory in a general election in 1990, the military government ignored the results.

Repeated crackdowns by pro-democracy and opposition political activists have taken place since, including the 1996 arrest of hundreds of NLD delegates on their way to a party congress, and several re-arrests of Aung San Suu Kyi. In 2005, the government reopened the country's National Convention to draft a constitution--but as before, opposition groups and ethnic minorities were denied a part in the process.

Although restrictions on the media have slowed the flow of information, satellite images from the past year reportedly show that the ethnic minority Karen population--the most significant ethnic group opposed to the government--was burned out of some villages and forcibly relocated.

Now, in the wake of the latest wave of anti-government protests, the military government is facing increasing pressure--as is China, one of the country's main business partners. China, along with Russia, vetoed a draft U.S. resolution at the UN Security Council in January urging the Myanmar government to stop persecuting minority and opposition groups. China is also the main supplier of Myanmar's weapons and military hardware.

For its part, however, the Bush administration seized on the Myanmar crackdown as an opportunity to renew its political battles with China, with the aim of expanding its influence in Asia, not saving lives in Myanmar.

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