Over two weeks of rallies against rising prices in Burma have been met with familiar violence. In the former capital, Rangoon (Yangon), government-organized gangs consisting of plainclothes officials and hired thugs have set upon protestors with increasing speed and severity. Hundreds are now in illegal detention — few, if any, have been arrested and held in accordance with the law; the whereabouts of many are unknown.
Some protests have continued in places where authorities have been slower to respond. In the western port of Sittwe, a column of monks and novices marched across town and chanted slogans, prompting warnings to those elsewhere not to follow suit. In the far south, students took to the streets in a line of motorcycles.
In the delta, a man stood alone with a placard in front of a filling pump before a policeman came and ordered him on to the back of his bike. On the way to the station, he reportedly continued to wave the sign, making the officer look like a fellow conspirator rather than custodian, to the amusement and applause of passersby. [News on his release: DVB]
As security has been tightened, new forms of protest have been emerging. Posters and fliers have appeared here and there. One, cleverly designed and written like an announcement for a religious event, calls on people to stay inside their houses at three auspicious times during September and bang pots and pans to drive out evil spirits emanating from the new capital.
Given the depth of frustration felt about virtually all aspects of life in Burma, it is not surprising that some persons have taken the risk of expressing outwardly what everyone else is feeling inwardly. But what is perhaps surprising is how little these expressions have been heard abroad. Although world media reported on them for a few days and some governments have issued stern pronouncements, the United Nations and other important international bodies have remained circumspect at best.
The most awkward response was that of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In a statement read by a spokesperson on Aug. 23, he called for dialogue and urged “all parties to avoid provocative action”: tantamount to suggesting that everyone get off the streets lest they cause the regime to respond with bloodshed, as if multiplying fuel prices in the impoverished country was not already provocative.
Although the secretary general’s tepid plea was in keeping with his background as a career diplomat, it was at odds not only with the human rights standards that the United Nations claims to uphold but also with the history of his own country.
On May 22, 1980, the U.S. State Department responded to reports of protests against its client regime in the Republic of Korea in much the same way as the United Nations did toward those in Burma a fortnight ago, urging “all the parties concerned to explore ways toward peaceful solution through self control and conversation.”
People in the southern city of Gwangju (Kwangju) were by then into the fourth day of a standoff with the armed forces, following their refusal to halt mass rallies against a renewed crackdown. There had already been numerous deaths and injuries (see photo above). Some locals had armed themselves, and began shooting back. News of what was happening had precipitated further outbursts in surrounding regions.
The Gwangju residents set up committees to run the town and negotiate with the military. But they were split between those who sought to compromise and those who would not surrender. When paratroopers led a final assault on May 27 over a hundred men and around ten women chose to make a last stand at the provincial hall.
Those persons’ relatives, as well as those of slain innocents, continued the fight. They assembled and buried bodies together, at a hill outside the city. Over the years, that place became a point for resistance to the military dictatorship: quiet at first, then louder.
As the story of Gwangju was kept alive, it gave impetus and meaning to the struggle for representative government. In 1987, the police state caved in and national elections were held. Two former dictators were later tried and convicted of treason; they were pardoned on the advice of an incoming president who had himself earlier been sentenced to death over the events in Gwangju. Hundreds of others also were indicted.
A new cemetery and monument now stand on the outskirts of Gwangju as lasting reminders of what happened there. And although the state is felt through official visits and speeches, each May 18 continues to be a day for the public, and for the relatives of victims who chose to provoke, rather than accommodate, despots.
It is hard to imagine what Korea might be like today had it not been for the fateful decisions of that May. But had Gwangju not arisen, South Korea’s ordeal would almost certainly have been longer, its society weaker. And had Gwangju not arisen, it would have been a loss for the country and for the Koreans — including the U.N. secretary-general.
None of this is to deny that current conditions in Burma are markedly different from those in South Korea two decades ago. Its military regime, backed by China, is more intractable and ruthless. But its people are equally capable of using their brains and weighing up the consequences of their actions. If they’ve had enough, whether or not they yell out on the street — or make a racket in the kitchen — is for them, not anyone else, to decide.
Like the Koreans during the 1980s, people in Burma today are looking abroad for some kind of support and empathy, rather than inane advice from persons who don’t really have their interests at heart. The secretary-general wouldn’t have the effrontery to address people in his own country in the manner that he has spoken to those in Burma. From now on, he should either show some more respect and sensitivity, or let others do the talking.
[Note: This article was written before recent important events in Pakokku (see Asia Sentinel and The Irrawaddy) and Bogalay (the latter has not obtained much English-language news coverage; see reports in Burmese — Yoma 3; VOA; RFA; DVB)]
Kwangju: Citizen’s response to state violence, Human Rights Correspondence School, AHRC: http://www.hrschool.org/doc/mainfile.php/lesson36
Lingering legacy of Korean massacre, BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4557315.stm