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Page last updated at 15:05 GMT, Friday, 26 September 2008 16:05 UK

Burma: The revolution that didn't happen

Monks and soldiers on the streets

By Kate McGeown
BBC News

It was dubbed the Saffron Revolution. Last September thousands of monks marched down the streets of Rangoon to call for democratic change.

They pledged to "wipe the military dictatorship from the land of Burma", and as the days went by increasing numbers of civilians joined their cause.

Hope began to flicker that the repressive military regime, which had been in power for more than 40 years, would finally be overthrown.

Then, on 26 September, the military's patience ran out. It launched a brutal crackdown, shooting and beating the protesters into submission.

By the end of 27 September at least 30 people were dead and thousands of monks were imprisoned or fled the country. The dream of a revolution was over.

Muted opposition

A year on, people are still trapped under the same dictatorial regime.

Other than a small demonstration in Sittwe, no other attempt to mark the anniversary of last year's protests has been reported.

No-one dares to even say the word democracy
J
BBC user in Rangoon

The government has increased its vigilance, curtailing the freedom of both monks and civilians, and BBC News website users inside the country tell us that although people are still talking about what happened last September, they are too scared to do anything about it.

"The junta has reduced the number of monks in each monastery. The monks dare not go out now," said Aung in Rangoon.

"No-one dares to even say the word democracy," added J, also from Rangoon.

Many would-be BBC users probably cannot reach us at all, because internet speeds have slowed dramatically, preventing people from uploading photos or videos as they did last year to tell the world what was happening.

Some dissident websites had to shut down completely for a few days last week, because of what they claim was interference by government computer experts.

A village destroyed by the cyclone ( May 2008)
The junta pressed on with a referendum despite Cyclone Nargis

Meanwhile the military appears to be continuing with its political plans as if the protests had never happened.

It is pressing ahead with its new constitution and so-called "roadmap for democracy", which promises an eventual elected government but has already been labeled a sham by the international community.

Despite the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis in May, the government pressed ahead with a referendum on its plans just weeks after the disaster.

It is even carrying on apace with construction of its new capital, Nay Pyi Taw.

While millions are still suffering from the cyclone, or battling to pay the increasing cost of food and fuel, glistening new offices are being built, along with six-lane highways, golf courses and even a zoo with an air-conditioned penguin house.

'Wake-up call'

Given all this, it would be tempting to assume that last year's protests achieved nothing.

But U Kovida, one of the monks who led the demonstrations, disagrees.

President Bush, left, and first lady Laura Bush, center, listen to Kovida U
U Kovida met President Bush and his wife earlier this week

He managed to escape from Burma by growing his hair so he could pass as a civilian and crossing the Thai border, and can never go back to his homeland - but he still has no regrets.

"I'm glad I did it, despite everything," he said. "We have to stick to our cause, we need human rights."

Dr Aung Kin, a Burmese historian, says the protests had a "ripple effect" among the overseas community, galvanizing them into action to help people still in the country.

"It was a wake-up call," he said.

The brutality of the crackdown also piled international pressure on the government to bring about serious democratic change.

This pressure was undoubtedly a major factor in the government's decision to let UN envoy Ibrahim Gabari back into the country, and allowed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to meet him and members of her party, the National League for Democracy, for the first time in three years.

But, as ever with the Burmese military, this was little more than a token gesture.

Mr Gambari has now visited several times, and his trips have achieved little. In fact Aung San Suu Kyi is said to have refused to see him in August, with her party describing the visit as a "waste of time".

"The government knows how to play the game now," Dr Aung Kin said. "There hasn't been any real change."

There are still a few glimmers of hope on the horizon, though. The government has recently freed a key dissident figure, Win Tin, as well as a few other political prisoners, and there is talk of UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon visiting Burma later this year.

The South East Asian regional grouping Asean has started to get tougher on Burma than it ever has in the past, and the UN and EU are trying to persuade other nations, principally China and India, to take a more resolute stance.

But looking at the junta's past record of intransigence, few people are optimistic of significant change any time soon.





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