As the protests fizzle out in the wake of the military junta's violent crackdown, many are wondering whether there is any hope for change in Burma. Are the people of Burma condemned to eternal suffering? Is their ordeal and anguish some sort of bad karma from which there is no escape?
There is no reason for pessimism. Struggles against autocracies take a long while. When autocratic power is dressed up as a military dictatorship, the struggle becomes even more difficult.
Nonetheless, the people of Burma, it should not be forgotten, have, from time to time, revolted against military rule. In 1988, a popular uprising, triggered off by price increases of basic commodities and currency devaluation, was crushed mercilessly. The junta massacred some 3,000 unarmed civilians. The uprising was spearheaded by students with monks playing a minor role.
The August-September 2007 mass protest against the military junta, euphemistically called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), is reminiscent of the 1988 uprising in one sense. It was the skyrocketing of prices caused by a huge fuel hike that ignited popular anger. It proves yet again that economic discontent is often at the root of mass revolts.
To gauge the depth of popular anger one has to understand that poverty is widespread in Burma. A quarter of its 56 million population live on US$1 a day. Wages are meagre. Basic amenities are inadequate. And unemployment is high.
Instead of addressing the people's miseries, the SPDC chose the path of suppression. Starting with the beating of protesting monks in Pakokku on Sept 5, the military cracked down on peaceful demonstrators in Rangoon, Mandalay and Sittwe on Sept 26. Four monks and six other civilians have been killed according to the SPDC though other sources reckon that the number could be higher. More than 2,000 monks and a sprinkling of activists, students and others may have been arrested.
When a detested regime attempts to suppress widespread disaffection through excessive force, one can be certain that the struggle for justice will gain strength. If that regime is also extraordinarily corrupt and self-indulgent, it is only a matter of time before it meets its demise. In the last few months, vivid accounts of how individuals in the SPDC elite have accumulated wealth and how it is lavished upon extravagant weddings and expensive holidays have been circulating in the country.
Thus, the three vital ingredients for the eventual triumph of mass movements for justice - widespread economic discontent; an oppressive regime; and massive elite corruption - are present in Burma. Add to these, two other factors that have surfaced in the course of the August-September uprising and one will conclude that change is inevitable, sooner than later.
The readiness of the community of monks to assume leadership of the struggle has bestowed the movement for change with tremendous credibility and legitimacy. The monks are also an inspiration - an inspiration of the Buddhist ideal of selfless sacrifice. It is partly because of their inspiring example that a lot of ordinary Burmese have overcome fear of the military junta. This is an essential pre-requisite for sustaining a struggle of this sort.
If anything, the effective use of some of the new communication technologies is also a boost to the struggle. The Internet as an information tool has aided both the dissemination of news in an environment of heavy censorship, and the mobilisation of protesters. At the same time, the recording of images of the actual struggle through digital and video cameras serves to inform, to educate and to conscienticise. This is critical in preparing for the next stage of what is a protracted struggle.
It is conceivable that in the next stage the movement will have greater depth and breadth and will be more cohesive and unified. One can expect it to embrace all major sectors of society with committed monks at the helm. What it means is that there is hope on the horizon.
But even if the next stage of the struggle does not produce the results one is hoping for, there is no reason to despair. There is an enlightened principle in Buddhism which Aung San Suu Kyi - a person of impeccable dignity and incredible integrity - has alluded to in her writings that should guide the struggle for justice in Burma. She observes, "Just continue to do what you believe is right. Later on the fruits of what you do will become apparent on their own. One's responsibility is to do the right thing."
The writer is president of the International Movement for a Just World.