In Burma, Activists Call for Nationwide Strike

It's not easy getting through to Burma at the moment. The military dictatorship there has been doing everything it can to cut off the country's links with the outside world, including shutting down the Internet and mobile-phone networks. So I was elated when I finally managed to complete a long-distance call to Kyaw Win (not his real name). Win, whose number in Rangoon was given to me by some Burmese exiles, is a veteran of Burma's pro-democracy movement. He's a member of what's known as the "88 Generation"—activists who took part in massive protests that shook the country back in 1988.

That makes him a particularly interesting person to ask about what's happening in the country right now. Over the past two days the news for the current anti-government movement hasn't been encouraging. By most accounts the regime's soldiers and police have largely succeeded in neutralizing the Buddhist monks who gave such a powerful impetus to the opposition when they joined street protests earlier this month. The security forces have cordoned off monasteries, confining some monks inside and arresting hundreds, if not thousands, of others. Many demonstrators have been beaten and detained; dozens of people (no one knows the precise number) have been shot. And the government's success in curtailing the flow of information to the outside world has also made its work easier. Small wonder that some media accounts are making it sound as though the government has already triumphed.

If activists like Win are any indication, though, Burma's opposition isn't dead yet. The monks may have been checked for the moment, he says, but protestors have still been taking to the streets of Rangoon in what he calls "guerilla demonstrations," with small groups melting away when challenged by the military and then reappearing elsewhere. Meanwhile, he says, the opposition is preparing for a new stage of defiance by making plans for a general strike. Just days ago, according to Win, representatives of the monks and the pro-democracy movement formed a "steering committee" to coordinate the next round of protests. They plan to call upon civil servants and technical personnel to join in a nationwide strike. That approach is designed to capitalize on widespread popular indignation over the government's brutal treatment of the monks. "Don't worry about our future," he says. "People know their duty, they know what they should do."

Given the resources on the sides of the government, that could well be hubris—or naiveté. Yet other Burmese echo those sentiments. Kyaw Zwa is managing editor of The Irrawaddy, a Thailand-based news service that covers events inside Burma. "I cannot say that they [the government] have won," he says. "Tensions are really high. People and the monks will reorganize the demonstrations." As he notes, several big demonstrations took place around the country on Saturday, even as the regime seemed to be finishing off its crackdown on the monks in Rangoon. He says that he's struck by the extent to which his compatriots have been overcoming their own fear in recent weeks: "More and more people are willing to talk with outside media."

Zwa believes that the protests will continue despite the government's resort to force. "I don't think we'll see crowds as big as the ones a few days ago. But people are really angry and outraged about the crackdown. In some way I think they will keep the demonstrations alive."

Shari Villarosa, the top U.S. diplomat in Burma, notes that many of the citizens of Rangoon are visibly saddened and demoralized by the turn of events over the past few days. And yet she also senses a distinct sense of unfinished business: "The underlying sources of grievance haven't been addressed."

The anger, Win contends, is greater than he's ever seen it before. His main worry, he says, is not that people will give up; it's that they'll resort to violence. Back in 1988, he notes, popular frustration with the government ended up compromising the cause. Some of the demonstrators (possibly egged on by government agents) resorted to looting or attacks on government troops. This time around, he says, the activists—and especially the monks—have been doing everything they can to ensure that the demonstrators maintain the moral high ground by sticking to non-violence. The vast majority of Burmese are Buddhist, a religion that frowns upon violent actions. So far, he says, most of his compatriots seem to get the message. Yet rage against the government is so great that "it's hard to control."

Many in the pro-democracy movement are putting their hopes on rumors of a split within the ruling military. Some say that lower- and mid-level officers increasingly resent their superiors' ever-more-obvious corruption and indiscriminate use of force to keep the country under control. That could account for the regime's initial (and inexplicable) hesitation in striking back against the monks, who are revered in Burma. Needless to say, like so many other theories about Burma, this one remains entirely unproven. Are the activists just grasping at straws? Perhaps. But no one should jump to conclusions. Even if it turns out that the government has won this round of the contest, the struggle for Burma's future is a long way from over. "We'll go on," says Win. "We dare to say, 'I believe.'"