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Angry monks move Myanmar protests up a notch

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Sporadic protests in army-ruled Myanmar look set to rumble on despite a major crackdown as savage fuel price rises feed through to the wider economy, analysts and diplomats said on Friday.

Throughout two weeks of determined demonstrations by social activists, monks and opposition politicians, the focus has stayed unwaveringly on the worsening daily grind of the former Burma’s 53 million people.

Calls of “Freedom” for opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, now in her 12th year of house arrest, have been remarkable mainly by their absence.

Instead, Buddhist monks say they cannot afford razors to shave their heads, and people in Yangon -- the engine of what 50 years ago was one of Asia’s brightest economies -- complain of selling family heirlooms to buy kerosene or pawning cooking pots to pay the bus fare to work.

“People genuinely have their backs to the wall and we haven’t seen the end of it,” one Yangon-based diplomat said, predicting accelerating inflation as last month’s two-fold hike in the price of diesel and five-fold rise in natural gas prices pass through the economy.

But the longer the protests drag on and the worse living conditions become, the greater the chances of a spark that could ignite a more widespread “people power” revolt.

“I don’t see it as gaining sufficient traction to really start, but the longer this ticks on, and the more electricity and other commodity prices feed through, there’s always the risk of a trigger that will move it into a second gear,” the diplomat said.

The currency, the kyat, is near historic lows at around 1,350 to the dollar and economists estimate annual inflation at around 50 percent.

High-grade rice is now 32,000 kyat a sack compared to 28,000 six months ago, triggering speculation the junta that first seized power in a 1962 coup may start doling out food to assuage public hunger and anger.

“All it needs is one little spark to harness people’s suffering and hatred of the military,” said Aung Naing Oo, a student activist who fled to Thailand to escape a ruthless military crackdown on a nationwide uprising in 1988.

Then, as many as 3,000 people are thought to have been killed.

MONKS MARCHING

While more than 100 people have been detained in the current protests so far, the junta is reluctant to go all out and send in the troops, perhaps mindful of the 1988 bloodshed, a watershed moment in the Southeast Asian nation’s post-independence history.

Apart from soldiers firing over the heads of demonstrating monks in the central town of Pakokku this week, most of the protests have been broken up by pro-junta civilian gangs.

Despite the crackdown and removal of most of the leaders of the 1988 uprising, the protests have spread from Yangon, the former capital, to the centre and the coastal northwest. Monks, major players in 1988, are becoming increasingly involved.

As several hundred angry monks torched government vehicles in Pakokku, the junta number two, Vice-Senior General Maung Aye, postponed a trip to Bangladesh, a sign of how seriously the junta takes the threat from the monasteries.

“There will be a great deal of anger among the monkhood when they get to hear about what happened,” one human rights worker said. “It’s pretty obvious it’s gone to another level.”

As well as the wave of dissent assuming a life of its own, diplomats and exile groups said Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party was playing a quiet, behind-the-scenes role.

“Everywhere that protests have occurred, NLD members have been involved. They may not have been leading party members, but they’ve been involved,” said Soe Aung of the National Council of the Union of Burma, a group of MPs now in exile in Thailand.

Greater access to mobile phones and the Internet is also playing a role in disseminating news beyond the rigidly controlled state media, which paint the protests as the work of “external destructive forces” -- junta shorthand for exiled dissidents and foreign governments.

However, the most powerful media remain the Burmese-language services of the BBC, Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, the only source of news most people have.

“Myanmar radio is just pop singers and lies,” a man in Kyaing Tong in eastern Shan state told Reuters last month.

The BBC and VOA also pump in the scathing comments from Western governments, especially the White House, and messages of support from Hollywood stars such as Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, who posted a clip on Youtube urging Suu Kyi’s release.

“People listen to the radio on a regular basis and I’m pretty sure they enjoy these kind of messages from around the world,” Soe Aung said.

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