At time of writing, up to five monks are reported dead and hundreds have been arrested for protesting in the Burmese capital Rangoon.*
There have been reports of beatings, while tear gas was fired at the protestors and shots fired over their heads.
The junta had banned all public gatherings of more than five people and imposed a nighttime curfew following eight days of anti-government marches led by monks in Rangoon and other areas of the country, including the biggest protests in nearly two decades.
More than 100,000 people marched through the old capital earlier this week, up from 20,000 the day before and 5,000 the day before that. The demonstrators grew in confidence as the military adopted an observe-only approach, although some of the early protests over fuel prices had been broken up by junta-allied youth groups.
That was before the Buddhist monks made their feelings known. Having taken part in protests against British colonialism and previous dictators, they have been at the forefront of the recent wave of demonstrations which some have taken to calling the Saffron Revolution.
It’s unclear how much longer this movement will last. Certainly the protestors have defied the military thus far, remaining on the streets even after tear gas attacks. But a similar crisis in 1988 led to a brutal crackdown by authorities and a massacre of civilians.
In all likelihood, the government allowed the protests because of Chinese influence. One blogger has quoted unidentified sources within Burma as saying China does not want civil unrest in the country. However, it is equally clear from the junta’s point of view that doing nothing would only encourage opposition.
Sky News have claimed that British intervention has halted the violence. I do not think that is the case. It is far more likely that China, eager to clean up its image ahead of next year’s Olympics, has had a few quiet words with the authorities. Perhaps the carrot of investment in infrastructure was offered — China is casting envious looks at Burmese gas and lumber reserves.
Burma may be smouldering, but isn’t burning just yet. Any more harsh tactics by the military could do it, but a full-scale uprising by the populace is not in the offing right now.
Former student leader Aung Naing Oo has pointed to the global media coverage of the situation, coverage he says was lacking in 1988. While this has so far served to bring sanctions against the Burmese leadership, it has not led to hard attempts at intervention.
China is vital to resolving this crisis. It has the political and economic power to bring the junta to heel, though encouraging democracy is not high on its list of priorities. Even India could have significant influence, as it has a deal to import Burmese gas.
The UN is too hamstrung to intervene. With China on the Security Council, no resolution can be passed against it unless it suits Chinese interests. There may be more luck by bringing regional groups’ pressure to bear on the situation: the Association of South East Asian Nations, for example.
The curfew is approaching. What actions the junta takes over the coming hours and days will determine if the flames of protest are smothered or can burn the military rule to the ground.
* I’m adopting the Irish Examiner’s current house style for the country, though its official name is Myanmar.