Doubts Arise in Wake of Myanmar Crackdown The government says order has been restored in Myanmar, following a crackdown on recent anti-government demonstrations. But some say the bloodshed has made security forces squeamish about using violence to quell any future protests.
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Doubts Arise in Wake of Myanmar Crackdown

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Doubts Arise in Wake of Myanmar Crackdown

Doubts Arise in Wake of Myanmar Crackdown

Doubts Arise in Wake of Myanmar Crackdown

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The government says order has been restored in Myanmar, following a crackdown on recent anti-government demonstrations. But some say the bloodshed has made security forces squeamish about using violence to quell any future protests.


A United Nations envoy is in Myanmar, but there's no word of progress since effort to get the military government to end its violent repression of protesters. Yesterday, Ibrahim Gambari was allowed to meet with detained opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. He is yet to see the military's top leader, Senior General Than Shwe.

NPR's Michael Sullivan is covering developments from Bangkok.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Myanmar state-run medias says that order has been restored in the country - some might call it that. Government troops and police were out in large numbers on the streets of Myanmar's biggest city, Yangon, again today. And anti-government demonstrators were largely absent.

Shari Villarosa is the top diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Yangon.

Ambassador SHARI VILLAROSA (U.S. Charge d'Affaires, Myanmar): It is quieter than it was last week basically because the willingness of the military to shoot their people in the streets has persuaded a lot of people to stay home. There's also a lot of military troops stationed particularly in downtown, where most of the demonstrations took place, and lots of barricades.

SULLIVAN: Some barricades were removed today around the Shwedagon and Sule pagodas, rallying points for last week's demonstrations. But soldiers and police remained close by. They show no sign of leaving any time soon. And few observers expect the visit by the U.N. special envoy to change things.

Mr. AUNG ZAW (Editor, Irrawaddy Magazine): How many U.N. special envoys are flying in and flying out of Burma? I mean, 20 years, we've seen seven special envoys, and the Burmese government as always, always ready to exploit their visit.

SULLIVAN: That's Aung Zaw, A Burmese exile who edits Irrawaddy magazine. He says the military routinely uses the U.N. as window-dressing, pretending to listen to appease the international community. Then, he says, the military goes ahead and does what it wants.

Professor David Steinberg, a longtime Myanmar watcher at Georgetown University, says the military is probably more concerned about its own soldiers than international opinion, especially when it comes to using force against Buddhist monks.

Professor DAVID STEINBERG (Asian Studies, Georgetown University): There are plenty of members of the military that really - they are minimally uncomfortable doing this to the monks or basically hate it. And so that massive repression of the monks could lead to internal military strife, something I think that they may well fear.

SULLIVAN: But Steinberg dismisses rumors of a possible split at the top, between Senior General Than Shwe and his deputy, Maung Aye. They may not like each other, Steinberg says, but they know they need each other. Irrawaddy editor Aung Zaw agrees.

Mr. ZAW: I mean, they maybe dissenting how to deal with the demonstrator, how -whether to use the water cannons, or whether to use rubber bullets or whether to use automatic semi-rifles. I mean, they might have arguments, you know, of what force are they going to use. And I still have a doubt or reservation on whether there's a real split.

SULLIVAN: Both Aung Zaw and David Steinberg agree the military has won this round, and because of it won't pay too much attention to the criticism from abroad - criticism they've largely ignored in the past, too. But neither Aung Zaw nor David Steinberg believes the military is out of the woods in the long run.

Professor Steinberg.

Prof. STEINBERG: I can't say who and I can't say when. But I think this whole level of political, economic and social frustration is cumulative. It's not something that dies down and disappears and then it has to be rebuilt. It's building up over time. And at some point, something is going to happen. Some lower member of the government is going to commit some egregiously stupid act that will upset everybody and cause, essentially, a revolution.

SULLIVAN: Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Bangkok.

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Aung San Suu Kyi Remains Influential in Myanmar

Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, shown in this May 2002 file photo, continues to be an influential leader for the pro-democracy movement despite her detention. Stephen Shaver/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Stephen Shaver/AFP/Getty Images

There was an electrifying moment in the Myanmar political crisis last month.

A group of Buddhist monks stopped their protest march at the steel gate of the compound where Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is under military house arrest. As they chanted the sutra "loving kindness," the diminutive 62-year-old opened the gate and stood in a position of prayer.

"That's when it became clear that the previously religious marches had turned into political opposition," says Priscilla Clapp, who was the chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Yangon from 1999 to 2002.

Clapp says Suu Kyi's influence on the movement is "tremendously powerful," even though the democracy advocate is being held virtually incommunicado in her home. In an apparent acknowledgement of that power, the military allowed a United Nations representative to meet with her on Sept. 30.

The Pro-Democracy Leader's Role

In news reports, Suu Kyi has been described as "prime-minister-elect." In fact, she is not. The confusion arises from an election in 1990, which her party, the National League for Democracy, won decisively, despite vote fraud and intimidation by the military. Suu Kyi, though, was unable to run in that election because she was under house arrest — and she was constitutionally barred from serving as head of state because she was married to a foreigner. In any case, the military rulers nullified the results they didn't like and kept themselves in control.

Clapp, whose position in the country was the equivalent of U.S. ambassador, says Suu Kyi's real strength is as the intellectual leader of the democracy movement. She says that Suu Kyi can work with some members of the military leadership, and that she understands the need for them to maintain security during the transition to democracy. During a brief period when she was able to travel the country in 2002, Suu Kyi focused on citizens' obligations in a democracy, rather than promises of freedom, Clapp says.

Aung San Suu Kyi's Upbringing

Aung San Suu Kyi was born into turbulent Burmese politics in 1945, two years before her father, Gen. Aung San, negotiated Burma's freedom from the British Empire. Just before independence, gunmen burst into a room where Aung San was meeting with his top aides, and massacred them all, leaving nine people dead.

Suu Kyi grew up Rangoon, where her mother, Khin Kyi, was active in the Burmese government. She attended an English-speaking Catholic school, then studied in New Delhi, while her mother was the Burmese ambassador to India. She got her Bachelor of Arts degree from Oxford and obtained her Ph.D. in Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Suu Kyi seemed destined for an academic career, especially after she met and married Michael Aris, a British scholar and expert on Tibet. The couple lived and worked in Bhutan and Japan, and had two sons, Alexander and Kim.

Standing Strong Despite Hardships

It wasn't until 1988, when she returned to Rangoon to care for her ailing mother, that Suu Kyi's career as a democracy advocate began.

She came home as a series of student protests was escalating into a widespread uprising against the military government of Gen. Ne Win. Although Win's government fell, the military rulers reorganized themselves and crushed the uprising, reportedly by killing thousands of students, monks and other protestors. The military has denied this, saying that only a few dozen people were killed.

During this period, Suu Kyi helped to organize the National League for Democracy, a movement that was strongly influenced by Mohandas Gandhi's teachings on nonviolent political action. In 1989, the military government placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, but offered to release her if she would agree to leave the country. She refused.

After the military nullified the results of the 1990 election, Suu Kyi garnered widespread attention and support for her cause. She received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and in 1991, the Nobel Prize for Peace. The military released her from house arrest in 1995, but made it clear that if she left the country, she would not be allowed to return.

When her husband, Michael Aris, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997, she chose not to go to him in Britain, and the Myanmar government refused him a visa to see her. They never saw one another again before he died in 1999.

Except for the brief period in 2002 and 2003 when she was allowed to travel inside the country, Suu Kyi has been held, either in prison or under house arrest. Her detention has been extended year by year, as Myanmar's military rulers realized that her influence had grown, rather than waned. Her recent talks with a U.N. special emissary suggest that she will have to be part of any resolution to the latest crisis.