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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 September 2007, 15:09 GMT 16:09 UK
How will Burma's junta respond?
By Nick Childs
World affairs correspondent, BBC News

For much of the outside world now, the challenge in the unfolding Burma crisis is trying to guess what is in the minds of the shadowy group of senior generals who are believed to make the decisions in the government, and how to influence them.

Burma has quite large armed forces for a country of about 50 million people. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the army amounts to some 350,000 personnel, and there are nearly 110,000 paramilitaries.

Than Shwe
Burma's leader Than Shwe has dealt strongly with opposition

What is not known is whether all the top generals are of one mind. Are there hardliners and others more susceptible to outside pressure?

There have been hints of factionalism in the past, and a purge - particularly of military intelligence - a few years ago.

It has been suggested that, up to now at least, the official response to the protests has been relatively restrained, certainly compared to how events unfolded in 1988.

The protests have been allowed to build up over several days without any comment from the junta, followed by a graduated ratcheting-up of pressure - a curfew, a ban on groups, tear gas, batons, and finally warning shots, according to the reports from the ground.

But is this because of behind-the-scenes pressure from China, an acknowledgement that the international focus is more intense in this information age, or a greater sophistication among the leadership than in the late 1980s?

The priority for the generals will be the survival of the regime, and therefore not letting the protests escalate further, rather than concern about outside pressure.

Pivotal China

The exception is likely to be over the attitude of China. Both from the outside looking in, and from the inside looking out, China is probably the pivotal player.

In January, China blocked a UN Security Council resolution on Burma. So the generals are likely to want to avoid a response harsh enough to propel Beijing into the camp of those at the United Nations calling for some kind of international initiative.

And while most of the outside world considers the Burmese authorities illegitimate and draconian, the generals are likely to be mindful of the need to maintain a degree of internal legitimacy, and to portray themselves as the only institution holding the country together in the face of the protests and ethnic divisions.

But how that all translates into military tactics, and how the military will perform, is still unclear.

There is no evidence of low morale or troops disobeying orders, but a true picture of such a closed society is difficult to discern.

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