It was over in a matter of minutes, but the significance of the occasion vastly exceeded its brevity. On Aug. 28, 20 demonstrators gathered at a market in Burma’s commercial capital, Rangoon, to protest against the junta’s decision to dramatically raise prices of essential goods. Led by labor activist Su Su Nway, the crowd had just begun to chant slogans when thugs employed by the ruling generals swooped in and started dragging the protesters into waiting vehicles. The frail Su Su Nway, who had only emerged from prison last year after serving seven months for reporting cases of forced labor to the U.N., was also manhandled by the mob of security forces but managed to escape in a taxi chauffeured by a sympathetic driver. “The junta is trying to create a very intimidating environment,” Su Su Nway told TIME shortly before she evaded arrest. But the 34-year-old activist refuses to be intimidated. “People must stand up,” she says, “and choose between freedom and oppression.”
Many Burmese are doing just that. The short-lived rally in Rangoon was one of 20 or so protests that in recent weeks have erupted across Burma a rare display of civil disobedience by a people who have been ruled for 45 years by one of the world’s most reclusive, and repressive, military regimes. The last time there were mass countrywide demonstrations, in 1988, the military cracked down hard, killing thousands of protesters and dashing hopes of democratic reform. Now daily life in this nation of 53 million has become so desperate that an impoverished populace may feel it has little choice but to take to the streets again.
The current rallies were triggered by the junta’s Aug. 15 diktat to hike fuel prices up fivefold, sending everything from food to transportation costs soaring. Four days later, former student leaders from the ’88 era organized a series of rallies in Rangoon, which drew hundreds of supporters. Even with most activists now locked up or on the run, demonstrations have continued to break out like spores across the nation. Buddhist monks have marched by the hundreds in several cities, adding a stamp of spiritual authority to the protest movement. University students have gathered, too, along with sidelined politicians and even some farmers. Human-rights groups estimate that more than 100 people have been arrested so far, including three bystanders in the western city of Sittwe whose alleged crime was to offer drinking water to a procession of protesting monks. On Sept. 3, a march from the town of Labutta drew hundreds of supporters before security forces broke up the rally. “If the regime doesn’t resolve the underlying economic problems and I don’t think it can quickly then things are not going to quiet down,” says Khin Ohmar, an ’88 student leader who lives in exile in Thailand. “We’ve all been waiting for the point when normal people overcome their fear of the regime and rise up; this could be that moment.”
The big question is whether these scattered demonstrations will lead to a replay of Burma’s version of Tiananmen, when a nation confronted its brutal military rulers only to be crushed by an iron fist. Certainly, there are similarities between today’s protest movement and that of 1988. Although the previous strikes are now glossed with a patina of democratic yearning, their initial motivation was also economic. Back then, the military regime demonetized the local currency, rendering millions of people’s savings worthless. Small groups began marching over a six-month period, a stop-start effort that culminated in August 1988 with tens of thousands of people thronging Rangoon’s streets. But the military quickly sent bullets into the crowds. By 1990, elections won by future Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy had been ignored by the junta. Burma slunk back into isolation.
This time around, the world, galvanized by blow-by-blow images transmitted via cell phones and through the Internet, has taken rapid notice of the protests and the subsequent crackdown. On Aug. 30, U.S. President George W. Bush condemned the junta’s actions, and White House aides have promised that Burma will be a “major topic of discussion” at the APEC annual summit, which opened this week in Sydney. A day later, U.S. First Lady Laura Bush, who has personally followed the situation in Burma for years and has met with many Burmese activists, called U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon to press for more action from the international body. “One thing we can do to work toward national reconciliation in Burma is for the Security Council to speak out formally,” Mrs. Bush told TIME. “Will that work I don’t know. But it’s the least we can do.” The First Lady also praised efforts of other leaders like British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has voiced forceful criticism of Burma’s generals. “It’s important for governments to put as much pressure on the military regime to listen to the people,” she said. “That’s all these protesters are asking.” Even some of Burma’s normally silent neighbors have piped up. In a landmark statement last month, lawmakers from ASEAN, of which Burma is a member, publicly castigated China for its continued support of the regime. “We know the world is on our side now,” says Aung Zaw, a former student activist who lives in northern Thailand and edits a Burma-focused publication called the Irrawaddy. “That moral support is very important for the people back in Burma, who are risking their lives to fight the regime.”