Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Tipping Point of Violence

Right now, Burma is on the verge of social collapse. Protests against the ruling military junta are fast reaching a boiling point. Demonstrations began last month after sudden draconian fuel hikes of 500%. When the military used force to disperse protesting monks, monks demanded an apology. However, the junta refused to cave in. And so the Alliance of all Burma Buddhist Monks has called for apatam nikkujjana kamma, which is a boycott of alms from the military and its supporters. In Buddhist culture, alms in the form of food or money is given to monks in order to receive merit, or good karma. Refusing to grant merit is akin to a spiritual death and a colossal loss of face. The last time monks stood up to the junta was in 1990 over the fallout from the 1988 uprising. The junta responded with punishing force, throwing hundreds of monks into jail and forcibly defrocking 300.

Many fear that the current situation is a time bomb waiting to explode. The junta has the wherewithal to respond with crushing brutality that can certainly surpass the violence of 1988. Last Monday, more than 100,000 marched in Rangoon, the former capital. Monks are now encouraging students and civilians to get involved. Artists, writers, and celebrities are throwing their weight in, as are the ethnic groups and political opposition parties.

from US Campaign for Burma

Burma Campaign UK sources in Rangoon have reported that soldiers have been ordered to shave their heads, in possible preparation for infiltrating peaceful demonstrations. They would start rioting or attacking police, providing the regime with a pretext for a brutal crackdown on protestors.

Sources indicate that soldiers from Light Battalion 77 in Rangoon have been given the order. Sources also report that the regime has ordered 3,000 monks robes from a factory in Rangoon.

It is a tactic the regime has used in the past, including at the Depayin
massacre in 2003, during which Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested. Regime militia dressed as monks were involved in the ambush which left up to 100 democracy activists dead. State television today reported that action would be taken against protestors.

"We know from experience that the regime is capable of opening fire on civilians", said Mark Farmaner, acting Director of Burma Campaign UK. The regime came to power on the back of a massacre in 1988 that left at least 3,000 civilians dead. They have also been accused by the UN of breaking the Geneva Convention for their deliberate targeting of civilians in attacks on ethnic minorities.

Despite the widespread expectations that the regime will use violence to suppress protest, the international community has been remarkably silent, with the French government being the only one to make a strong statement warning of consequences if the regime respond with violence. ASEAN has also expressed concern.

"The regime has been held in check by the peoples' respect for the monks and the fact that the world is watching, but the scale of protests means they will be looking for options that allow them to justify a crackdown," said Mark Farmaner, "The UN Secretary General and other world leaders must speak out and make it clear that a violent response in unacceptable. At the moment the international community seems to be willing to watch from the sidelines as the regime moves closer to a massacre. If the regime does attack protestors, this will have been one of the most widely predicted massacres in recent history, and makes a mockery any government's claim to be committed to human rights."

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