Ugly scenes this week near Rangoon’s sacred Sule Pagoda and City Hall have further tarnished the reformist credentials of a government that should be ashamed of itself.
The violent crackdown in the heart of downtown, which conjured images reminiscent of similar repression in 2007 and 1988 under the former junta, offered a reality check for those who subscribe to the theory that Burma is on an inexorable path to democracy.
On Thursday afternoon, about 200 students and activists staged a demonstration in front of City Hall to support student protestors elsewhere in the country pushing for a revamp to the National Education Law.
Their peaceful assembly was met with bullying and billy clubs as police and unidentified vigilantes cracked down on the protesters, arresting at least eight.
Tin May Thaw, in her 20s, was one of the victims, targeted by three plainclothes thugs. One of them put her in a headlock while another pressed his elbow to her throat. The third man was busy twisting one of her arms. The petite young woman and several other protestors were hauled and thrown her into the back of a truck like cattle. Her head hit the vehicle’s body in the mayhem.
Tin May Thaw gave her account of the incident in a press conference on Friday, hours after she and seven other protesters were released after being held in custody overnight. During the press conference, our Irrawaddy reporter noticed that Tin May Thaw found it difficult to speak due to the pain of her throat.
A prominent women’s activist was among the victims of Thursday’s crackdown. Nilar Thein, who has served multiple stints as a political prisoner since 1988, was beaten and kicked by police and vigilantes.
The protestors in Rangoon were, ironically enough, demanding that the government not use violent force against student protestors who have set up camp in Letpadan, Pegu Division, on their way from Mandalay to Rangoon in a march for educational reform.
Our photographer Sai Zaw, who is in Letpadan covering the students encamped there, also became a target this morning. I phoned him to inquire about the situation in the town, which is located about 85 miles northwest of Rangoon. He told me that he was about to take photos of a small group of students protesting nearby. I hung up.
One hour later, we received word that Sai Zaw had been snatched by police while photographing the arrest of five students—being carried out, as in Rangoon the day prior, by a combination of police and plainclothes thugs.
When a man in plainclothes, who was helping to bundle one of the activists into a truck, spotted Sai Zaw taking photo of him, he ordered police to “arrest him too.” Police officers grabbed him and tried to put him in the truck, but fellow journalists’ quick reflexes allowed them to wrestle Sai Zaw back from the authorities.
He was lucky.
Minutes after his release, Sai Zaw told me that the police had first attempted to seize his camera before trying to arrest him.
This week the government, which has been dubbed “reformist” by much of the international community since early 2011, has employed tactics honed for decades by the junta, in which Thein Sein was a senior general and former prime minister.
Particularly disconcerting were the thugs, whose tactics and plainclothes get-up bore a striking resemblance to the group known as Swan Ah Shin. The latter group launched crackdowns against peaceful demonstrators in the 2007 Saffron Revolution and ambushed a motorcade of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 2003, killing dozens of her supporters.
In 2007, government-backed ruffians dragged peaceful protestors through the streets of Rangoon like animals, exposing the brutality of the regime to much of the outside world for the first time. International condemnation swiftly followed.
And while the severity of this week’s repression has thus far not (yet) approached the previous regime’s penchant for bloodbaths in the name of maintaining stability, one would hope that the world continues to watch.
Consecutive military regimes that ruled the country since 1962 drove Burma’s people into poverty and isolation. That isolation made it easy for foreign powers promoting democratic values to ostracize Burma and vocally criticize its leaders’ governance.
Today, in the “New Burma,” growing Western investment and regional geopolitics make such chiding less palatable. There’s simply too much at stake to take a hardline democratic position.
Credit is due to Thein Sein on this point: A clever diplomatic makeover has allowed him to have his cake and eat it too, hosting foreign dignitaries and reaping the economic rewards of the country’s opening, on the one hand, while sending thugs out to the streets to rough up pesky democracy advocates, on the other.
The barbarism on display this week should serve as a wakeup call for those who continue to insist that all’s well in Burma.