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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 September 2007, 13:08 GMT 14:08 UK
Rumbling protests worry Burma's leaders
By Soe Win Than
BBC Burmese Service

Fuel protest in Rangoon on 22 August
Burmese people are angry about the sudden fuel price increase
Many people in Burma have been surprised by the sheer persistence of the protests in recent weeks.

In a country where the authorities show zero tolerance of even the slightest criticism, such public displays of defiance have not been seen for almost 20 years.

These protests stem from a decision by the military government to suddenly raise the price of fuel by up to five times on 15 August.

Transport fares rose and that triggered a sharp rise in the price of consumer goods, hitting poor people particularly hard.

The generals must have hoped that the momentum of the demonstrations would eventually die down, but more marches keep taking place across the country.

I was arrested by some soldiers and then tied by the neck to a lamppost
Monk in Pakokku
Most of these have so far been led by activists and members of the main opposition party - the National League for Democracy - but ordinary people have also joined them, speaking out about their misery under military rule.

The authorities, worried that the protests would spread, have sometimes responded with force, employing groups affiliated to the government and thugs rounded up from the districts to violently attack and arrest demonstrators.

Images of brute force used against peaceful protesters have shocked the nation.

Burma's 'three sons'

The government's confidence that it could silence the angry voices was further shaken when monks joined the protests in the central town of Pakokku.

Burma's military leaders showed their nerves, using the army to disperse the peacefully marching monks and arresting some of them.

"I was arrested by some soldiers and then tied by the neck to a lamppost," one monk told the BBC.

"The rope was so tight that my throat was too sore to even drink water afterwards. Then I fainted with exhaustion and a policeman slapped me across the face," he said.

Myanmar's leader Senior General Than Shwe salutes during  Armed Forces Day
Burma's leaders worry that students and monks will join together
The monk was taken to a police station and forcibly disrobed, but later freed.

This confrontation with the monks caused particular concern among the ruling generals, because monks are highly revered in staunchly Buddhist Burma.

The government, for its part, moved to portray the demonstrations as something directed by "internal and external destructive elements".

But there is a popular Burmese saying that when the "three sons" of the nation join hands, the military regime will be in big trouble.

The three sons - a play on words in the Burmese language - are students, monks and soldiers.

Students and monks have been at the forefront of the struggle against repression since the independence movement, and the generals fear these two forces will unite against them once again.

A group of monks have now warned Burma's leaders that if they do not offer an apology for beating the monks in Pakokku, and free detained pro-democracy activists by 17 September, they will not perform any religious duties for the generals.

The act itself may be symbolic, but being shunned by the monks is the highest form of punishment for a Buddhist.

Constitutional referendum

This is a particularly sensitive time for the generals. They have just concluded the National Convention - the first step of what they describe as a seven-point roadmap to democracy.

The convention laid down basic principles for the new constitution which, the military hope, will guarantee their continued role in ruling the country.

Some of the Convention's 1086 hand-picked delegates
The long-running National Convention has finally ended
The constitution will be put to a referendum soon, and it is crucially important for the military leaders that it is approved.

They need the support of the people but perhaps belatedly realise that their move to raise fuel prices was ill-timed.

So far the general populace, while sympathetic to the demonstrators, are still reluctant to join the rallies.

"I want to join the protests myself, but I cannot afford to lose my daily wages, otherwise my family will go without dinner tonight," one female labourer told the BBC.

But some analysts believe that when people feel the pinch of the fuel price rise and struggle to feed their families, they too could end up joining the protest movement.

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