Saturday, August 8, 2009

Security Tight on Anniversary of 8888 Uprising

The Irrawaddy News

Pro-junta supporters and truckloads of riot police patrolling Burma’s commercial capital on Saturday kept potential demonstrators off the streets on the 21st anniversary of pro-democracy protests that triggered one of the country’s bloodiest uprisings.

The anniversary comes days before a Burmese court rules on whether democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi should be jailed for five years for violating the terms of her house arrest. The Nobel laureate came to prominence during the demonstrations and remains the country’s most popular politician.

The verdict, scheduled for Tuesday, has already been delayed because judges said they needed more time to sort through legal issues. But Burmese scholars say the real reason for the postponement was fears that pro-democracy groups would take to the streets on the anniversary if a guilty ruling was handed down.

Rangoon’s streets were quiet Saturday and security forces were present in much of the crumbling city.

Dozens of riot police and scores of unarmed supporters of the regime were stationed along the main roads and junctions, as well as near the major monasteries and pagodas.

Dozens of barbed wire barricades, some of them freshly painted, were placed on roadsides.

Local media used the anniversary to praise the regime and warn residents not to be taken in by unidentified opponents, most likely pro-democracy groups.

Residents interviewed in Rangoon said they dared not mark the anniversary, knowing they would be quickly arrested and face the prospect of long prison sentences. Most said they had other priorities.

“I have forgotten that today is the anniversary,” said Hla Maung, a 52-year-old trishaw driver. “I wake up every morning thinking how to feed my family of three.”

Outside the country, dozens of demonstrators marked the day with protests in front of the Burmese embassies in the Thai capital of Bangkok and the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. A small demonstration was also held at the Burmese consulate in Hong Kong.

The anniversary marks the August 8, 1988 demonstrations—known locally as the 8888 uprising—in which more than a million people protested following the government’s sudden demonetization of the currency, which wiped out many people’s savings. Suu Kyi, a political novice at the time, became the face of the movement.

The protests brought down longtime dictator Ne Win, but a new group of generals replaced him and brutally crushed the protests in September, killing an estimated 3,000 people. Elections were held in 1990, but the military refused to recognize the landslide victory of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party.

Suu Kyi, who has been detained for nearly 14 of the last 20 years, faces up to five years in prison on charges that she harbored an American who swam to her lakeside villa earlier this year—a violation of the terms of her house arrest.

Security has been increased in Rangoon over the past several weeks and was stepped up on Saturday in response to recent security threats, national police chief Brig-Gen Khin Yi said at a news conference Friday.

He said “external opposition groups and terrorists” had planned to carry out attacks during UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s visit last month, as well as near Insein prison, where Suu Kyi’s trial is being held. The targets also included buildings of the pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Association, he said.

Khin Yi said authorities have arrested 15 people this year for planning to carry out “demolition activities” in Rangoon, Mandalay and other big cities, though he did not say how many were connected to the trial.

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