It is not easy for even the most ruthless of dictators to put down anti-government demonstrations when the protestors happen to be bare-footed monks armed with begging bowls. This is what’s happening in Myanmar as monks march across the country in a frontal challenge to the ruling military regime, which seems to be at its wit’s end to come up with an effective response. The pro-democracy protests began last month as the government abruptly hiked fuel prices, pushing up transport fares that triggered a sharp rise in the price of consumer goods. Although activists and members of the main opposition party initially led the protests, monks, nuns and the public soon joined them, denouncing the military rule.
Such public defiance has not been seen for nearly 20 years as the generals usually adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards the slightest criticism. This suggests that Myanmar’s military masters thought the protestors’ momentum would eventually die down. The protests, however, appear to be growing shriller by the day across the country and the big question is whether they will eventually fizzle out, or if this really marks the beginning of the end for khaki rule in Myanmar. The crisis could be coming to a head soon, going by the generals’ reported threat to act against the monks if they don’t end the protests. Painful memories of 1988 still linger, when a similar uprising for restoring democracy was crushed, killing nearly 3,000 people. Later, when Aung San Suu Kyi won the election (which the military expected her to lose), she was prevented from assuming the presidency and put under house arrest.
Her courage in confronting the military and choosing to remain in captivity since then may just have a happy ending if this time round, the sheer number of monks — who occupy a revered place in a profoundly devout society — deters junior ranks of the army from executing the junta’s orders. And since this coincides with the UNGA meeting in New York, it’s also possible that the threat of more international sanctions against the military regime could prove to be the tipping time for Myanmar.