The Monks Rebel

The situation in Myanmar (formerly Burma) continues to worsen with reports of escalating efforts by the government to violently repress ongoing nonviolent demonstrations. The protests, sparked by steep increases in fuel costs, are being led by Buddhist monks who have called for a reduction in commodity prices, the release of political prisoners, and national reconciliation. (Now that the government has decimated Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, the monks are the only organized force strong enough to challenge the junta.)

Accurate information is difficult to come by since there are few journalists currently operating inside the country. But there have been media reports of at least eight people killed, widespread use of tear gas against demonstrators, hundreds of arrests and beatings and the detention of at least 300 monks who have been active in the growing anti-government protests over the last month.

Watch this very rough video uploaded to YouTube this morning by an anonymous protester for a sense of what's going on.

Reports are also emerging of growing defiance in the face of the junta's counter-attack as tens of thousands of Buddhist monks and pro-democracy activists continue to take to the streets. As Kyi May Kaung writes at Foreign Policy in Focus, journalists estimate the number of protesting monks countrywide to be 500,000, which equals the number of soldiers in the junta's standing army. The mass demonstrations are the largest in the country since 1998, when thousands were killed as security forces employed lethal force against massive pro-democracy demonstrations.Since then the Myanmar junta's human rights record has been deplorable. Amnesty International, which has done more work on the country than any other international organization, has documented the cases of at least 1,160 political prisoners who are being held in deteriorating prison conditions. Child soldiers and forced labor continue to be used. The use of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment are common, especially during interrogation and pre-trial detention.So, yes, Myanmar is ripe for revolt and the brave monks leading the opposition seem determined to not let this current moment pass. The world community has been unanimous in its criticism of the crackdown with the EU and President Bush calling for tougher sanctions against the Myanmar government. But sanctions have been in place for years and it's unclear how this latest round of international condemnation will force the SLORC's hand.So grassroots solidarity efforts are more important than ever. To kick things off, Amnesty International is organizing a series of demonstrations outside Burmese embassies and high-profile public locations calling for the Myanmar authorities to respect the right to peaceful protest. Check its website for info, see the Voices for Burma blog for on-going reporting on the protests as well as activist ideas and watch this space for more info on how you can help.Peter Rothberg writes the ActNow column for the The Nation. ActNow aims to put readers in touch with creative ways to register informed dissent. Whether it's a grassroots political campaign, a progressive film festival, an antiwar candidate, a street march, a Congressional bill needing popular support or a global petition, ActNow will highlight the outpouring of cultural, political and anti-corporate activism sweeping the planet. Watch this space for more examples in the coming days.

(c) 2007 The Nation

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