Die-hard protesters waved the peacock flag of the crushed pro-democracy movement on a solitary march Saturday through the eerily quiet streets of Myanmar’s largest city, where many dissidents said they were resigned to defeat without international intervention.
Housewives and shop owners taunted troops but quickly disappeared into alleyways. According to diplomats briefed by witnesses, residents of three neighborhoods blocked soldiers from entering the monasteries in a crackdown on Buddhist monks, who led the largest in a month of demonstrations. The soldiers left threatening to return with reinforcements.
The top U.N. envoy on Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, arrived in the country but many protesters said they were nonetheless seeing a repeat of the global reaction to a 1988 pro-democracy uprising, when the world stood by as protesters were gunned down in the streets.
“Gambari is coming, but I don’t think it will make much of a difference,” said one hotel worker, who like other residents asked not to be named, fearing retaliation. “We have to find a solution ourselves.”
Running out of hope
Soldiers and police were posted on almost all corners in the cities of Yangon and Mandalay. Shopping malls, grocery stores and public parks were closed and few people dared to venture out of their homes.
A young woman who took part in a massive demonstration in Yangon Thursday said she didn’t think “we have any more hope to win.” She was separated from her boyfriend when police broke up the protest by firing into crowds and has not seen him since.
“The monks are the ones who give us courage,” she said. Most of the clerics are now besieged in their monasteries behind locked gates and barbed wire.
Gambari was taken immediately to Naypyitaw, the remote, bunker-like capital where the country’s military leaders are based. The White House urged the junta to allow him to have access to Aung San Suu Kyi — the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is under house arrest — and ordinary Myanmar residents.
History of violent crackdowns
The demonstrations began last month as people angry over massive fuel price hikes took to the streets — then mushroomed into the tens of thousands after the monks began marching.
The junta, which has a long history of snuffing out dissent, started cracking down Wednesday, when the first of at least 10 deaths was reported, and then let loose on Thursday, shooting into a crowd of protesters and clubbing them with batons.
The crackdown triggered an unprecedented verbal flaying of Myanmar’s generals from almost every corner of the world — even some criticism from No. 1 ally China.
But little else that might stay the junta’s heavy hand is seen in the foreseeable future.
The United States, which exercises meager leverage, froze any assets that 14 Myanmar leaders may have in U.S. financial institutions and prohibited American citizens from doing business with them. The leaders, including Than Shwe, are believed to have few if any such connections.
The United Nations has compiled a lengthy record of failure in trying to broker reconciliation between the junta and Suu Kyi. Gambari’s efforts have been stymied, while his predecessor, Razali Ismail, was snubbed or sometimes barred from entry by the State Peace and Development Council, as the ruling junta is formally known.
Trading partners stay on the sidelines
The United States, Japan and others have turned a hopeful eye on China — Myanmar’s biggest trading partner — as the most likely outside catalyst for change.
But China, India and Russia do not seem prepared to go beyond words in their dealings with the junta, ruling out sanctions as they jostle for a chance to get at Myanmar’s bountiful and largely untapped natural resources, especially its oil and gas.
“Unless and until Beijing, Delhi and Moscow stand in unison in pressuring the SPDC for change, little will change,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
Some Chinese academics and diplomats say the international community may be overestimating what Beijing can do.
“I actually don’t think China can influence Burma at all except through diplomacy. China’s influence is not at all decisive,” said Peking University Southeast Asia expert Liang Yingming.
India has switched from a vocal opponent of the junta to one currying favor with the generals as it struggles to corner energy supplies for its own rapidly expanding economy.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, a 10-member bloc which includes Myanmar, also has given no indication that it is considering an expulsion or any other action.
As governments heap criticism on the junta, Myanmar and foreign activists continue to call for concrete, urgent action.
“The world cannot fail the people of Burma again,” said the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, an exile group based in Washington. “Selfless sacrifices deserve more than words and lip-service. They want effective intervention before it is too late.”