The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

A revolution in Myanmar?

September 24, 2007

I’ve been trying to follow what’s going on right now in Myanmar. I know pretty much next to nothing about Myanmar, other than it used to be Burma, but it certainly looks like a people-power revolution is in progress. Thousands of Buddhist monks have taken to the streets and the government has been reluctant to crack down, perhaps hoping that if they just ignore them, the demonstrations will lose steam. Instead, the opposite seems to be happening: momentum appears to be gathering and the crowds are growing larger by the day. The protests are also spreading to cities besides Yangon (Rangoon).

A couple months ago, I wrote that one of the things that can produce a crisis in an otherwise stable authoritarian regime is an exogenous economic shock. That seems to have been the trigger here: unrest first surfaced after the government was forced to sharply raise fuel prices in mid-August: diesel prices doubled, while the cost of compressed natural gas quintupled. Consumer prices, naturally, also jumped, and public transit was disrupted.

The first wave of protests against the fuel price hike were organized by dissidents who were promptly arrested. However, beginning in late August, the protests were joined by Buddhist monks, who generally enjoy a high level of social deference in Burmese society. Although there have been some repressive moves made towards the monks, the government seems reluctant to engage in a crackdown against a group with such high social capital. Monks were even permitted to march to the home of democracy activist (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Aun San Suu Kyi and engage in prayer with her; it was her first public appearance in over four years. Nevertheless, today the regime has started to talk tough, threatening to take action if senior clerics don’t put a stop to the actions of their followers.

A violent crackdown, sadly, remains the most likely outcome of the current crisis. Nonetheless, many are hoping that if the student activists and the monks can maintain a united front, the protests will reach the sort of critical mass where ordinary people start to join in, and the regime will no longer be able to hold on.

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