Working for the Clampdown

The BBC reports that violent suppression of protests in Burma has begun and according to official Burmese media "nine people were killed on Thursday as troops fired tear gas and bullets to clear large crowds of protesters off Rangoon's streets" though western diplomats think that's an underestimate. Yesterday, Kerry Howley, who's lived in Burma, observed that "while the world may be watching, I doubt most Burmese are."

The country’s communications infrastructure is incredibly limited. Seven people out of 1,000 own televisions, and they’re not getting BBC. They’re watching MRTV-3: all government propaganda, all the time. It’s difficult to get a license for a satellite or an internet connection. Cell phones cost thousands of dollars; even most expats don’t carry them. I worked in relatively cosmopolitan Yangon, but a friend who worked in upper Burma once told me the villagers he worked with had never heard of Aung San Suu Kyi. The land lines rarely work, and when they do, sane people do not discuss political matters over them. It’s probably safe to assume you know more about what’s going down on Sule Pagoda Road than much of Burma does.

In these kind of situations, it seems to me that the key variable tends to be the loyalty of the security services. It often turns out to be difficult to get rank and file soldiers to shoot at unarmed countrymen protesting in the streets against a corrupt regime. But when they're willing to follow orders, there's ultimately nothing the protesters can do to ensure success.