Security tight on anniversary of Myanmar uprising

Aug. 08, 2008, 8:06 a.m. (ET)

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) Twenty years after it violently suppressed a bid by more than a million peaceful protesters to restore democracy, Myanmar's military junta was on high alert Friday with riot police guarding the country's main city and detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's home.

While no protests were reported in Myanmar itself, activists around Asia planned to mark the 20th anniversary with demonstrations at the embassies of both Myanmar and China, a key ally of the junta that critics say could pressure the leadership to bring about change. The protests also coincide with the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing.

"We are here because China is the main supporter of the military regime," said Kyaw Lin Oo, a Myanmar activist living in Thailand who was among 30 protesters at the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok.

"We want the Chinese government to understand the actual cost of their support to the people inside of Burma," he said, using the country's former name. "China can help our democratization process by putting pressure on the military regime."

He later joined about 100 others outside the Myanmar Embassy. They chanted "Free Burma, Free Aung San Suu Kyi" and threw red paper airplanes with the message "We will never forget. We will never give up. 1988." over the embassy wall.

No one was arrested.

A similar protest was held in the Philippine capital, Manila, where some 50 people demonstrated outside the Chinese Consulate.

The demonstrations mark the 1988 uprising in which more than a million people took to the streets following the government's sudden demonetization of the currency, which wiped out many people's savings. 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, including many students and Buddhist monks.

The protests propelled Suu Kyi, daughter of Myanmar independence hero Aung San, into the political limelight, and led to the founding of her National League for Democracy party to challenge army rule.

Elections were held in 1990, but the military refused to recognize the landslide victory of Suu Kyi's party. Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, has spent more than 12 of the past 19 years under house arrest.

The mood inside the country is weary. Suu Kyi remains under house arrest for a sixth year and many other pro-democracy leaders are in prison or in hiding following last year's failed demonstrations in which at least 31 people were killed.

"I've totally lost hope that change will come through mass protests," said Min Aung, a dissident in Yangon who marched in 1988 and again in demonstrations last year. "It's difficult to organize protests now because most of the leaders are in jail or in hiding."

In Yangon, the country's largest city, the only sign of the anniversary was beefed-up security.

Hundreds of riot police were posted at busy intersections and truckloads of security personnel guarded landmarks and flash points for earlier protests, including famed Shwedagon pagoda and the former campus of Rangoon University, which has been moved out of the city.

Additional barriers and a fire truck were placed at Suu Kyi's house, already surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by scores of riot police. Activists said they had no plans to challenge the junta in the streets.

Nyunt Hlaing, a 57-year old grocery shop owner in Yangon, recalled with fondness how he marched for a month in 1988, threw stones at soldiers and put up barricades to stop their armored vehicles.

"I cannot participate the way I did in 1988. I am older now and have a family to take care of," Nyunt Hlaing said. "Those were the days, and I don't expect demonstrations of that scale to ever take place again in the country."

Exiled Burmese dissidents in Thailand acknowledge they are at a loss as to how to bring down the regime, at least in the short-term.

"A lot of people are saying, 'What has gone wrong? Where are we now?'" said Aung Naing Oo, who took part in the 1988 uprising and was among nine dissidents who met Thursday with President Bush. "Why are we still in this situation?"

But that doesn't mean Burmese activists have given up hope or forgotten the dark days of 1988.

"As the world celebrates the opening of the Beijing Olympics, people should pause to remember the atrocities in Burma 20 years ago," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "This anniversary is testament to the Burmese people's enduring demand for freedom and to the world's failure to end repressive military rule."