Questions and answers about the protests in Myanmar:
Q: What touched off the current demonstrations in Myanmar?
A: The trigger was the military regime’s huge increase of fuel prices, which caused the cost of public transport – used by most people in Myanmar – to also rise. But the protests also reflect long-standing discontent with the repressive military regime,and were initiated by veteran pro-democracy activists.
Q: What do the demonstrators want?
A: The original demands were for the fuel price to be dropped again and other measures to ease people’s economic burdens in one of Asia’s poorest nations. But they also include apologies for mistreating monks during a demonstration. More importantly, they have broadened to include the release of all political prisoners including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. There is no official leadership of the protest movement, however, so the demands are not universally recognized.
Q: Why are monks involved and what role do they play in society?
A: Buddhist monks have traditionally spearheaded movements for social and political change, against British colonialism as well as post-independence military dictatorships. They were very active in a failed 1988 pro-democracy uprising, as well as 1990 protests that were put down over several months with raids on hundreds of pagodas and the arrests of hundreds of monks. Monks are revered by the majority of the nation’s predominantly Buddhist population as the conscience of society.
Q: Will the military government pay heed to international pressure? Who has leverage on the junta and why?
A: Myanmar’s government so far has been able to shrug off harsh criticism and economic and political sanctions applied by the U.S. and other Western nations. It has survived by cultivating investment in its potentially vast oil and gas reserves. Neighboring China and India curry favor with the junta because of Myanmar’s strategic location and resources. China is the regime’s main ally, supplying the most aid and diplomatic muscle at international forums.
Q: The U.S. government announced sanctions on Myanmar; will they have an impact? What is the history of the U.S. in Myanmar?
A: As long as the military government can turn to other sources for support, any sanctions are likely to be ineffective. Some analysts argue that by so completely ostracizing the regime, Washington loses any chance at influencing it or elements in the military to make reforms. To Americans, the country is best know for its role as a World War II theater that was a back road into China, with troops fighting in the jungle and pilots flying supply missions over the nearby Himalayas. Its most famous citizens are Suu Kyi, the 1990 Nobel peace laureate, and the late U Thant, who served as U.N. secretary-general