As many as 100,000 people on Monday took to the streets of Rangoon, Burma’s former capital city, in the largest demonstration seen in the country since the August 1988 pro-democracy protests that ended in a bloody crackdown.
The protest came as calls grew for the generals who govern Burma to maintain their restraint they have shown over the past week as daily protests led by Buddhist monks against the economic hardship facing ordinary Burmese have grown.
“The government has so far behaved with commendable restraint,” Mark Canning, the British ambassador in Rangoon, told the Financial Times. But, he added: “This is gaining real momentum. There are some very powerful factors driving what is going on.”
The British ambassador in Rangoon was amongst thousands who turned out early on Monday afternoon to witness the largest demonstrations seen in Burma since August 1988.
“There were a lot of monks marching, with columns going in all directions,” said Mr Canning. ”They were completely peaceful and disciplined.
Canning estimated personally seeing about 9,000 monks and demonstrators, but other reports suggested higher numbers but with fewer monks than on Sunday. Monday’s demonstrations included ordinary civilians, students and some parliamentarians elected in 1990.
“We have estimates ranging from 3,000 to 100,000,” commented a diplomat at the US embassy. “Usually these things are vastly exaggerated, but there are certainly a large number of people out there.”
The unrest in Burma began in mid-August when the Burmese regime raised fuel prices by as much as 500 per cent without warning, adding to the economic woes of Burma’s 53m people.
Over the past week, however, protests have grown exponentially in scale as monks across the country have taken to the streets and bystanders have begun to join in. Monday’s demonstrations included ordinary civilians, students and some pro-democracy parliamentarians elected in 1990.
“Even last Wednesday, this could not have been conceived of,” Mr Canning said. “People are following the monks gingerly, but getting more into it as every day passes.”
“I hope the government recognizes the significance of the situation. It is not about fuel prices any more, but underlying problems,” he added.
Despite an increasingly spontaneous mood in its major cities of Rangoon, Mandalay and Sittwe, there is concern about a possible military crackdown.
Governments in the region have been urging restraint, including the junta’s closest ally, China. earlier this year China quashed a censure motion against the rogue Burma regime in the UN Security Council. But it has been recommending prudent political reforms that will ensure stability – though so far to little effect.
“It is very important that China plays a role here, not just for its investments, but for its image, particularly with the Olympics [being held in Beijing] next year,” said Win Min, a Burmese academic at Chiang Mai University in Thailand.
“If anybody is in a position to exert an influence, it is Burma’s neighbours – Thailand, China and India,” says Mr Canning.
Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst living in exile, fears that violent suppression could trigger anti-Chinese sentiments, particularly in Mandalay and northern Burma which has seen a strong wave of Chinese migration since 1988. “If anything happens, it could turn into anti-Chinese riots,” he warned.
There is concern that the military might use similar tactics against the monks and other demonstrators to avoid the spectacle of a public clash between uniformed police or military and members of the revered clergy. Civilian thugs were filmed attacking more isolated protesters earlier in the present unrest.
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