History & Current Events
On 15 August, 2007, the ruling junta made an unannounced decision to remove fuel subsidies, which caused the price of both petrol and diesel (which powers virtually everything in Burma, from transport to the essential generators) to double in price, while the cost of compressed gas increased five-fold in less than a week.
The consequences were felt immediately. People could not afford to go to work, while increased transport costs pushed food prices even higher.
Led by pro-democracy activists, citizens began protesting within days in the capital Yangon. These protests were quelled quickly by the government, who arrested and beat many of the activists. Nonetheless, small demonstrations continued to be held in Yangon, Sittwe and other towns.
Involvement of the Monks
When government troops injured at least three monks while breaking up a peaceful demonstration in Pakokku on 5 September, monks briefly took government officials hostage in retaliation, triggering calls for a government apology for the incident.
The situation escalated when the junta refused to issue an apology. Monks began to protest in greater numbers and withdrew religious services from the military.
But the protests were not just about the lacking apology. The unannounced increase of the fuel price was the last straw for the monks, who were witnessing growing economic distress in their country, which was beginning to push huge numbers of Burmese families to the brink of destitution.
The participation of the monks in the protests is significant, as they are highly revered by the civilian population and the military. The Buddhist clergy is the largest organized civilian institution in Burma.
On 22 September around two thousand monks marched through Yangon and ten thousand through Mandalay, with other demonstrations in five townships across Burma. Although still under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi made a brief public appearance at the gate of her residence to accept the blessings of the Buddhist monks, a strong assertion of unity between the monks and the pro-democracy movement. The Alliance of All Burmese Monks vowed to continue the protests until the military junta, whom they described as "the enemy of the people”, was deposed.
On 24 September, up to 100, 000 people responded to a call from the monks and joined a peaceful protest in Yangon, making it the largest Burmese anti-government protest in twenty years. Key members of the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) also joined the protests.
At first, the military government showed restraint over the protests. But after a week of increasingly large protests, it imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew, as well as banning any gathering of more than five people, and threatening the demonstrators with military force.
On 26 September, the Junta crackdown began. Troops barricaded Shwedagon Pagoda, which had been the focus of the protests, and attacked a group of 700 protesters with batons and tear gas. At least four people were killed in the firing by security forces in Yangon when the protests continued. More than 300 people, including monks, were detained on that day alone.
The worst of the violence was seen on 27 September. Troops fired on unarmed protesters, and at least 31 people were killed. At least 16 individuals died in custody.
Junta security forces raided monasteries and homes across the country, and thousands of arrests were made. Monks were said to have been rounded up and held in make-shift detention compounds to be transported to prison camps in the north. Many of them are still political prisoners.
On 28 September, there were already fewer demonstrators on the streets.
The regime attempted to dampen public awareness and communications around the protests by shutting down the internet. But a group of undercover reporters for an Oslo-based NGO and opposition broadcaster, the Democratic Voice of Burma, caught scenes of the brutal military crackdown, and by smuggling the footage out of the country at great risk, revealed to the world the horrifying events taking place. The camcorder material has now been turned into an acclaimed film (see http://burmavjmovie.com/).
In total, the government arrested 3,000 to 4,000 people in September and October. Authorities detained several thousand monks during raids on monasteries.
Throughout October, security forces continued raiding houses in search for people who participated in anti-junta demonstrations. Relatives of suspects who could not be found were taken hostage as a form of pressure, and even those who provided water or food to the monks, or who applauded protesters were arrested. At least 274 NLD members were detained.
The US, EU, Canada, and Australia tightened economic sanctions against top officials. The US, along with the EU, called for action to be taken over the protests. The UN sent a special envoy to Burma, and the UN secretary general, Ban ki-moon, condemned the crackdown as "abhorrent and unacceptable".
Burma’s closest ally, China, called on the leaders to restrain from violence. But it maintained its traditional reluctance to interfere in Burma’s domestic affairs.