Burma Protest Just Beginning: Activist


Burmese pro-democracy activists shout slogans during a demonstration near the Indian Parliament in New Delhi, 23 August 2007, held to protest against the Burmese military regimes arrest of leaders of the 88 Generation Students and other leading pro-democracy activists. AFP

BANGKOK—A Burmese veteran activist on the run from the military regime says recent protests in his country are "just the beginning" as the authorities hold at least 65 people, including 13 of his fellow former student leaders.

In an interview with RFA's Burmese service from his undisclosed hiding place, Ko Htay Kywe warned his country's military rulers that suppression would no longer work, given the growing tide of popular resentment that he said was spreading fast around the country.

"The junta thinks that they can stop these movements by suppressing them," he said. "But this movement isn't just being carried out by the veterans of the 1988 student pro-democracy protests."

Official Burmese media have reported that the number of protesters detained has reached 65, while the Thai-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) on Monday released a list of 100 names of those detained in the last four days of protest and public activism, which were sparked by a rise in fuel prices in a country where much of the population struggles to survive.

"Members of the National League for Democracy opposition party, ethnic minorities, monks and ordinary people are all participating," Ko Htay Kywe said.

He also said the protests were no longer confined to the former capital Rangoon, but were likely to spread around the country.

Leading dissidents detained

"People around the country are waking up now," Ko Htay Kywe said, saying he wasn't the only leader of demonstrations, which would continue even if he was arrested.

"This is just the beginning, not the end," he told RFA.

Ko Htay Kywe's statements came after 13 of his fellow activists, known as the '88 generation of students from that year's peaceful protests, were detained by the authorities for "agitation to cause civil unrest," a charge punishable by up to 20 years in jail.

They included leading dissident Min Ko Naing, along with Htin Kyaw, Ko Ko Gyi, Min Zeya, Ko Jimmy, Ko Pyone Cho, Arnt Bwe Kyaw, and Ko Mya Aye.

Min Ko Naing has already spent 16 years in prison in Burma, where he was tortured.

What we did was just be there in a show of strength to the protesters in front of city hall in Rangoon.

Government hires muscle

The authorities have begun cracking down on protests in and around Rangoon, beating and detaining protesters, and warning people of legislation introduced in 1988 forbidding the assembly of groups of more than five people.

The European Union on Tuesday expressed concern at the wave of detentions following the fuel price protests.

"The European Union condemns this decision to detain individuals who were exercising their basic right to peaceful demonstration," the Presidency said in a statement posted on its Web site.

"The European Union further urges the authorities of Burma to release without delay Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leaders and political prisoners, in particular those arrested in the last few days," it said.

It called on the military regime to engage in "the sort of open and inclusive dialogue which is indispensable to long-awaited political reforms."

Burma's official media reports have described the protests as "agitation to cause civil unrest aimed at undermining peace and security of the State and disrupting the ongoing National Convention."

The government has deployed people hired by the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a grassroots organization frequently drafted to attack peaceful demonstrations without drawing the same attention as uniformed personnel would.

One Rangoon-based construction worker explained how he came to be working for the USDA on the city's streets.

"When I got to the site in the morning, our foreman told us to go with the USDA people and the local authorities. We didn't know where, or what we would have to do," said the man, who added that he was paid 2,000 kyat (U.S. $1.30), almost a full day's wage, to stand outside the municipal office buildings in a show of strength to protesters.

"I didn't want to do this at all. But there are unfortunately good reasons for us to do this...What we did was just be there in a show of strength to the protesters in front of City Hall in Rangoon," he said.

"Those who were arresting and hitting the protesters weren't with us. They were different, not hired for the day like us. I think they were like police, or they were hired separately for that reason."

The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has warned of escalating protests.

Aung San Suu Kyi has spent 12 of the last 19 years under house arrest. Her party won 1990 elections by a wide margin but has never been permitted to take power.

Original reporting for RFA's Burmese service by Khin Maung Soe and Zaw Moe Kyaw. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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