Myanmars road map to crisis

KOLKATA, India — Ibrahim Gambari, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special envoy to Myanmar (formerly Burma), arrived in Yangon, the country’s largest city, on Sept. 29. He departed on Oct. 2 to report back to the UN Security Council in New York. During his visit, he had met the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi as well as the leader of the military junta, Senior Gen. Than Shwe.

As Gambari left the country, the military government officially declared that “peace and order has been restored.” Protests led by thousands of Buddhist monks had rocked the Southeast Asian country only days before.

Gambari leaves a nation that is uncertain as to what the future may bring, and a people who live in fear of being detained and jailed for no reason. The country is gripped by a crisis that has been brewing for several decades.

A report by the BBC estimates that 4,000 monks were quietly rounded up Oct. 1 and sent to the far north of the country. More monasteries are reportedly being raided by the police as the government continues to search for and arrest those who helped lead the protests.

Civilians are also being questioned and detained. Whenever seven or more people assemble, they risk the chance of being jailed without knowing why. The Internet has been blocked for the entire country, and all communications in and out of the country are being screened. People are risking their lives by passing information to the outside world.

The economic situation in Myanmar has been declining for several years. The economy is almost completely controlled by the military junta. Imports and exports require licenses. Entrepreneurs have to go through a lot of red tape and procedures, and opportunities for bribery and corruption are everywhere.

The trade of rice — a commodity that Myanmar prides itself on producing and a mainstay of both the people and the economy — is controlled by companies that are connected to the military. Although many everyday commodities are subsidized, they are available only in limited quantities to the people. More than half of the government’s annual budget goes to the armed forces, starving the social needs of 49 million people.

Harsh economic sanctions imposed on Myanmar by the United States and the European Union have driven most of the population into poverty. On top of that, the military government built a new capital city, Naypyitaw, in the jungle 200 miles north of Yangon. The cost of the project contributed to the country’s financial crisis.

At the end of 2006, prices of basic commodities began rising sharply. Rice, eggs and cooking oil went up by 30-40 percent. Already, a typical household spends 70 percent of its income on food.

The government increased the price of fuel on Aug. 15 — the price of oil and diesel fuel doubled, and the price of natural gas, used in all buses, which are the chief means of transport for the country’s workers, increased five-fold. In turn, food prices and bus fares rose sharply. These were the last straws.

On Aug. 19, about 400 protesters took to the streets of Yangon to protest the rising prices. Their gathering was the largest seen in several years. The authorities quickly arrested those who were involved, but more protests broke out in Yangon, Sittwe and other towns.

After troops broke up a peaceful rally in Pakokku in Sept. 5, large numbers of Buddhist monks joined the protests. They were attacked and injured by the troops. The next day, the monks took government officials hostage and demanded apology by Sept. 17. The government never apologized for their actions, and more monks took to the streets, joined by thousands of civilians.

The demonstrations grew to about 100,000 people on Sept. 27-28 in Yangon, at which point government troops opened fire.

The government says that 10 people died in the clashes, but other sources are estimating the death toll to be closer to 200. A Japanese journalist was among the dead. Many more people were arrested or injured. Among the people who disappeared during the crackdown were authors and editors, and several leading youth activists as well.

An emergency curfew has been put in place in Yangon. Daily protests have been occurring around other towns in Myanmar and around the world in Thailand, Bangladesh, Malaysia, England and elsewhere.

For now, things are quiet in Yangon. An eerie quiet silence surrounds the city, where only people who need to be at work are riding the buses.

Shelly Delos, a Burmese-born activist, is former editor of Dynamic magazine.