Have you ever caught hold of a tiger’s tail? If not, Burmese generals can report what it’s like—they’ve probably had some experiences to share with you.
Burma’s Gen Ne Win, who staged a military coup in 1962, once caught hold of a tiger’s tail and never let it go.
The general, who introduced the “Burmese way to Socialism” and self-imposed isolation to the country, soon realized the failure of his nationalization policy.
In 1965, three years after the coup, he famously told journalists and officials: "It was like having caught hold of a tiger's tail.” Then he added: "But there was nothing else to do but hang on to it."
Today, the tiger is reawakening as the monks march out of their monasteries and members of the everyday public join them in the streets in what is looking like a repetition of the 1988 uprising.
But, the demonstrations this time are different to those of 1988. They started simply enough when members of the 88 Student Generation group staged a march in Rangoon on August 19. Predictably, the generals cracked down again, arresting and imprisoning more than 400 activists.
But, the 88 Student Generation leaders' demonstration touched a public nerve. They had stood up for everyday citizens, outraged over the sudden, steep hikes in fuel and commodity prices. The generals made a serious political blunder, and when 13 of the group’s leaders were manhandled, imprisoned and some were reportedly tortured more fuel was added to the fire.
Enter the monks, who for years had remained silent in their monasteries. When they took to the streets, and were also subsequently manhandled and brutally beaten in Pakokku on September 5, the brutality of the authorities infuriated the Sangha who demanded an apology from the regime only to be met by silence.
What has happened since is a casebook study on street-politics, which some observers say indicates a controlling strategy behind the present demonstrations. Over the past week, the monks have sent clear symbols to the outside world and to the people of Burma.
First, they marched to religious pagodas not to public buildings, thereby claiming the highest moral ground and making it harder for the military to intervene.
Second, they marched to the Chinese Embassy where they paused to chant the "Metta Sutta," the Buddha's words on loving kindness, thereby sending a signal to those who support the junta.
Third, they marched to the home of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who appeared before them, symbolically uniting with the monks.
And now the monks have asked the students and public "to join hands."
A new tiger had been unleashed, one that will be harder for the junta to control.
Now the tiger’s tail is being held by junta leader Snr Gen Than Shwe and his cronies. If they fail through fear to let go of it they’ll probably see history repeating itself.
The wave of protests led by thousands of monks has shaken a once confident regime that hijacked Burma’s political legitimacy and took control of the country at gunpoint. Burma is clearly a political time bomb that can explode anytime.
The regime has lost all public confidence in its own plan to bring stability to the country through the mechanism of the National Convention tasked with drafting guidelines for a new constitution.
The determined monks’ peaceful marches have stolen the regime’s show and injected new energy into the fragile opposition movement.
What about the international community, however?
We continue to see selfish, opportunist and ill-informed neighbors who are quick to exploit Burma’s resources but reluctant to support moves towards political change and democracy.
The UN and the West continue to adopt a policy of “closely watching” events in Burma. UN special envoys continue to fly in and out of Burma with no tangible results. By mixing small doses of good news with a bounty of bad they are only doing the Burmese people a disfavor by equating one with the other.
The monks, activists and their supporters are the true heroes in the current stage of Burmese history.
They are also realists, understanding full well that there is no easy shortcut or quick fix to cure Burma’s ills. Yet they also know best how to confront the regime and solve the country’s problems.
They know Burma cannot afford to lose many more years. Their message to the generals is: let go of the tiger’s tail.
This article will appear in the October issue of The Irrawaddy.