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by Marwaan Macan-Markar

Burma's Hardline Generals Now In Control Of Country (2004)

(IPS) BANGKOK -- A handwritten letter to a military dictator may sound like an ineffective and risky way to voice defiance, especially in the Internet age.

But in Burma, where access to digital technology is limited and strict censorship is in force, the country's long-suffering people have resorted to the old-fashioned letter to express their growing dissatisfaction with the country's ruling junta.

A letter-writing campaign, organized by a highly respected group of former university students known as the "88-Generation Students," launched in the first week of the new year. In and around Rangoon tens of thousands of people sought the special envelopes and paper designed for this drive.

"This is an effort to break the silence. To get people to openly write about their grievances to the military government," said Naing Aung, secretary-general of the Forum for Democracy in Burma, a group of Burmese political exiles who work closely with the 88-Generation. "It is not enough to just complain. This is to get people to show their courage by standing up and openly identifying themselves as critics."

The month-long letter-writing drive, known as the "Open Heart" campaign, is the latest effort by the 88-Generation to "raise the people's voices," Naing Aung explained in an interview. "It is a peaceful way of expressing the public's views, because protests are banned, the media is censored, and there are no elections."

Nonetheless, directly addressing Burma's strongman, Than Shwe, comes with a high personal risk, including a jail term, if it provokes the ire of the junta.

The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta is officially known, currently holds over 1,100 people in jails for expressing their thoughts on a range of subjects. These political prisoners include opposition parliamentarians, Buddhist monks, journalists, writers, students and political activists.

The 88-Generation, which is named for the students who led a pro-democracy protest in 1988 that was brutally crushed by the military regime, mounted this new effort following the success of three other campaigns conducted in 2006.

The first, in October, called for public endorsement of a plea for the release all the political prisoners, including detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. An estimated 60,000 people signed that petition.

Such a rare sign of public dissent in a climate of increasing oppression was followed by two other creative ways to register discontent, both resulted in impressive demonstrations of public support.

The 'White Expression' campaign asked the public to wear white clothes as a mark of honesty and purity. The other was a prayer meeting, where people of diverse religions were encouraged to hold silent prayers, including candlelight vigils, in temples, churches and mosques.

Burmese political activists view this shift in the public mood as a further indicator of deepening frustration across this Southeast Asian nation toward a regime that is seen as incompetent, corrupt and oppressive.

"The people want to cooperate in this campaign because of the growing suffering. Some people don't care what will happen to them because they are just angry," Zaw Min, spokesman for the Democratic Party for a New Society, an opposition party banned by the SPDC, told IPS. "People are increasingly identifying themselves as they express their opinion."

This emerging political undercurrent has also struck journalists working for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a radio and television station run by Burmese political exiles with headquarters in Oslo, Norway.

"More and more people inside Burma are voicing their anger through our programs," Than Win Htut, a DVB senior reporter, told IPS. "Some have even walked for half a day to get to a telephone from their village to criticize the SPDC's inefficiency or abuse of power."

Dissent has gathered momentum over the past two to three years, he aded. "The people are feeling more confident to complain about the SPDC unlike earlier. There is clearly a change in attitudes."

Among the factors that have triggered the rising tide of discontent, say Burma analysts, is the arrest of the country's former intelligence chief and prime minister, Gen. Khin Nyunt, and his allies within the regime,. Khin Nyunt, who received a 44-year suspended sentence in July 2005, had close contacts with the country's business community and was viewed as a moderate in some quarters inside Burma and by other Southeast Asian governments.

"The economy has shrunk noticeably since the purge of Khin Nyunt," said Debbie Stothard, of the Alternate ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Network on Burma, a regional human rights lobby. "The business people who had benefited lost out. And the sense of dissatisfaction grew wider, with many becoming fed up with Than Shwe, who has diverted money to his own small clique, " she told IPS.

"The sense of outrage and anger is growing," she added. "There is a feeling that change is very possible and that is why more and more people are taking risks to speak out," she said.

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Albion Monitor   January 9, 2007   (

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