Burma: Rebels Plan Next Steps

By all accounts, the monks of Burma haven't given up. Prodemocracy Burmese say the battle against the military dictatorship is continuing, even now that government troops have largely succeeded in clearing protestors from the streets in the country's biggest cities. Activists estimate that some 6,000 people have been arrested, including 2,000 Buddhist monks, who, according to unconfirmed reports, are being held in shackles at two technical institutes in Rangoon that have been converted into makeshift prisons. The authorities are betting that these improvised detention centers will enable them to keep the monks under wraps, isolated from the international community and from the thousands of other detainees now swelling Burmese prisons. Yet many of the imprisoned monks, according to Thailand-based prodemocracy activist Khin Ohmar, are still refusing to accept food or favors from the authorities. More important, she says, "they haven't lifted their religious boycott." Translation: members of the military remain effectively excommunicated from the Buddhist community, a powerful sanction in Burma's deeply religious society.

The enforced calm on the streets of Rangoon make it easy to think that the battle for control of Burma's 47 million people has already been decided in the military's favor. Indeed, early this week Foreign Minister Nyan Win declared at the United Nations in New York that Myanmar (as the country's military rulers prefer to call it) was returning to "normalcy" after the spate of demonstrations and defiance that have swept the land over the past month. He blamed the tumult on forces of "neo-colonialism" that have been trying to destabilize the situation from abroad. Witnesses say that the protesters appear to have been cowed into silence for the moment, and that the government already seems to be reducing the number of troops on the streets. On Tuesday the country's military leaders announced that they were shortening a curfew they had declared just days earlier—a move taken by many observers as an indication that the generals feel sufficiently in control to allow for minor concessions.

But has the junta been sufficiently shaken by the mass protests that it is willing to come to some sort of power-sharing deal with the opposition? Nobody seriously expects the junta to resign, but the country's divided rebel groups met secretly on Monday in an attempt to find unity and a way toward the goal of political reconciliation. On Tuesday, after some stalling, the junta finally allowed United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari to meet with its leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe. It's still not known what the two men discussed, but observers were intrigued when Gambari followed up the talks with a visit to Aung San Suu Kyi, the imprisoned leader of Burma's democratic opposition. It was Gambari's second meeting with Suu Kyi since his arrival in the country on Saturday. The flurry of activity—which included several get-togethers with other top-ranking generals—spurred hopes that the military regime might be ready to do a deal of some sort.

Don't bet on it. Ever since the Burmese military first seized power 45 years ago, the generals have shown few scruples about maintaining their hold. Time and time again the military regime has offered moves toward dialogue that turn out to be merely another tactic for outfoxing the opposition. In 1990, following epochal antigovernment demonstrations two years earlier, they even held an election that was resoundingly won by Suu Kyi's movement—and then effectively annulled the results by putting Suu Kyi back under arrest, where she has remained almost without pause ever since.

Yet many activists argue that something fundamental has changed. The monks' prominent participation in the demonstration suggests that the frustration and anger of the Burmese is spreading to ever broader segments of society. The remarkable flow of news and images across Burma's borders via the Internet and mobile phones has prompted a powerful shift in international opinion. Even Burma's best friend, China, has seen fit to chide the military regime for its behavior. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), long criticized for its conciliatory policies toward the Burmese junta, has now moved to adopt a far tougher stance than ever before. In a letter to Gen. Shwe, ASEAN's current chairman, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, wrote that "the videos and photographs of what is happening on the streets of [Rangoon] and other cities in Burma have evoked the revulsion of people throughout Southeast Asia and all over the world." Meanwhile, Japan, which played down the regime's 1988 massacre of thousands of antigovernment demonstrators, is now demanding an accounting from the generals after the killing of a Japanese journalist during the protests.

Those who know Burma well, though, warn against expecting too much from the application of pressure from without. The generals have never shown themselves particularly concerned about foreign opinion before. Yet activists hope that the surge of international sympathy for their cause will have at least some effect—not least as a way of reinforcing support for the new constellation of resistance within the country. "Buddhist monks are untouchable, and this military touched them," says Than Khe, another Thailand-based exile who cut his political teeth with the 1988 demonstrators. "Sooner or later Burma will change because of this action. No one can tolerate this much longer." In a view echoed by other activists, Khe predicts that the now-quiescent demonstrators will soon be taking to the streets yet again. "Sooner or later there will be more demonstrations against this regime, because they cannot crush our spirit. There will be more turbulence; this is the calm before the storm. That's why we need a dialogue now."

That word "dialogue" sounds feeble, but it could come to play a crucial role in the days ahead. Many activists argue that expecting the generals to simply cede power and disappear back into their bases is unrealistic. Some say that it makes more sense to offer the soldiers a share of power in a future Burma as an incentive for allowing gradual liberalization. Others, to be sure, warn that similar strategies haven't worked in the past, and that the military can't be regarded as a trustworthy negotiating partner. The next few days will undoubtedly clarify the available options. But no one should make the mistake of thinking that the activists' fight is over. Says activist Ohmar, "People on the ground say, 'We can't lose it again'." What strikes her, she says, is that the basic demands of the protesters remain the same today as they were 19 years ago. Some things never change.