III. Price Hikes, Peaceful Protests, and the Initial Reaction of the Authorities

On August 15, 2007 the Burmese government unexpectedly removed most subsidies on fuel and natural gas prices, causing rapid and dramatic increases in the prices of fuel, diesel, and natural gas, as well as basic commodities. Natural gas prices increased overnight by as much as 500 percent, and fuel and diesel costs doubled. The rise in fuel prices had a knock-on effect throughout the population, as already impoverished persons struggled to meet the increased costs of transport and basic goods. 

“Su Su Hlaing,” a tea shop owner from Rangoon, explained to Human Rights Watch how her business was affected:

The tea shop business went bad because of the price increases. The milk and charcoal prices rose. People couldn’t afford to buy at the tea shop because the prices were higher. So, there was not much profit for my family…before the fuel prices, the cost of [food delivery] was 200 kyat. After the price increase, it was 400 kyat for the service…as for our daily earnings, before we used to sell 70,000 kyat a day, which gave us a profit of 5,000 kyat. After, we would sell 50,000 kyat a day, which gave us a profit of 1500-2000 kyat a day. And this is [the income] for the whole family.18

On August 19, an estimated 400 to 500 people, including prominent leaders of the ’88 Generation student movement, gathered for a march in Tamwe Township of Rangoon to protest the fuel price increases. “Htet Zin Moe,” a shopkeeper who had joined that protest told Human Rights Watch:

On August 19, I went to Tamwe to [buy shop supplies]. While I was there, I saw the demonstration led by [’88 Generation leader] Min Ko Naing asking the government to reduce the fuel price. At that time, I supported the demonstration. I was shouting as I was walking with them, explaining why I was marching. I joined at 11:30 a.m., for about 20 minutes. There were no USDA or Swan Arr Shin [militia] giving the people any trouble.19

Earlier in the year there had been a number of small protests, including a February 22 protest in Rangoon against poor economic conditions that led to the arrests of nine people who were released a week later,20 a follow-up protest by the same group of activists in Rangoon on April 22, 2007, that led to the arrest of eight people,21 and a one-person protest on June 19, 2007 (the birthday of Aung San Suu Kyi) in Taungkok township, Arakan state, against inflation. But the August 19 protest was the largest public demonstration in Burma in years.

The government responded on August 21 by arresting prominent activists, targeting most of the leadership of the ’88 Generation student movement, including Min Ko Naing,22 Ko Ko Gyi,23 Min Zeya, Ko Jimmy, Ko Pyone Cho, Arnt Bwe Kyaw, and Ko Mya Aye.24 The government arrested people on a daily basis in its efforts to halt the protests: by August 25, more than 100 people had been detained, including many officials of the NLD, the former chair of the Labor Solidarity Organization, the chair of the Human Rights Defenders and Promoters group, other political activists (most of them former political prisoners), members of the Myanmar Development Committee, and ordinary protesters.25 The detentions of the ’88 Generation student leaders were publicly announced in the state-controlled New Light of Myanmar newspaper, which claimed that “their agitation to cause civil unrest was aimed at undermining peace and security of the State and disrupting the ongoing National Convention,” and listed criminal charges that could result in long prison sentences.26

As soon as the demonstrations began, the protesters in the street faced harassment from pro-government elements that threatened and at times physically attacked them. These included the SPDC-organized Union Solidarity Development Association(USDA) and the Swan Arr Shin (“Masters of Force”) militia.27 (The USDA and Swan Arr Shinn militia are discussed in detail in chapter VIII).

According to press and eyewitness accounts, when a second protest of some 100 people was organized on August 22, “armed police took up positions across [Rangoon] alongside truckloads of men from the army’s Union Solidarity and Development Association [who] were carrying brooms and shovels, pretending to be road sweepers.”28 Some of the protesters were physically assaulted by the USDA members. The police present did not intervene to stop the assaults, although they did arrest some of the protesters afterwards.29

On August 23, security forces and militia members detained a group of 30 protesters who were walking “quietly without placards” to the offices of the National League for Democracy, manhandling them into waiting civilian trucks. The same day, U Ohn Than, 61, a former political prisoner, held a solitary protest in front of the US embassy, holding up placards and shouting slogans for about ten minutes before being detained by the security forces.30

On August 24, militia members broke up a protest near the City Hall in Rangoon, beating and detaining some 20 protesters.31

On August 28, 2007, some 50 persons led by the veteran labor organizer Su Su Nway32 shouted “Lower fuel prices! Lower commodity prices!” at the Hledan traffic circle in Rangoon. Militia and uniformed security members assaulted the protesters and detained at least twenty protesters, mostly members of the NLD.33 Su Su Nway herself escaped arrest by jumping into a taxi, but was detained on November 13, 2007, as she and colleagues were putting up protest leaflets near the hotel where UN Human Rights Envoy Paulo Pinheiro was staying at the time.34

By September 1, 2007, continuing arrests and attacks on protesters by the militias posed a significant challenge to protest organizers in Rangoon. Most of the activists responsible for organizing protests in Rangoon had either been arrested or were now in hiding to avoid arrest, as security forces had distributed the names and photographs of wanted activists to hotels and neighborhood officials.35 However, small protests were now also being staged in other cities including Sittwe, Meiiktila, Taunggok, and Mandalay.36

On September 3, the Burmese authorities announced the completion of the 14-year-long National Convention to draft a new constitution. The Burmese authorities used the convention’s completion as a weapon against the protesters, suggesting that the protesters sought to disrupt Burma’s “roadmap to democracy.” 

The same day, authorities immediately detained protesters who planned to march 260 kilometers from Laputta to Rangoon, and a brief 15-person protest was held in Kyaukse, the hometown of Burma’s military leader, Senior General Than Shwe.37

18 Human Rights Watch interview with “Su Su Hlaing,” (location withheld), October 26, 2007.  All names in quotation marks in the report are pseudonyms to protect interviewees from government reprisal.

19 Human Rights Watch interview with “Htet Zin Moe,” (location withheld), October 29, 2007.

20 See “Army-ruled Myanmar Detains Six After Rare Protest,” Reuters, February 23, 2007.

21 See “Eight Protesters Detained for Rare Protest in Military-ruled Myanmar,” International Herald Tribune, April 22, 2007.

22 Min Ko Naing is a founder and leader of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), one of the leading organizations behind the 1988 protests in Burma. He was detained after the crackdown on the 1988 protests, and spent 15 years in prison, until his release on November 19, 2004. He was re-arrested in September 2006, released on January 11, 2007, and arrested for a third time less than a week later. He remains in detention at the time this report was published, following his August arrest.

23 Ko Ko Gyi was deputy chairman of the ABFSU during the 1988 protests. He was detained for more than 14 years from 1991 until March 17, 2005. He was detained again in September 2006, and released on January 11, 2007. He remains in detention at the time this report was published, following his August arrest.

24See “Burma: Arbitrary Detention of Protesters,” Human Rights Watch news release, August 22, 2007.

25 AAPPB, “List of Arrested Persons,” DATE, and other sources.

26 See “Myanmar Activists Face Legal Action Over Fuel Hike Protests,” Agence France Presse, August 25, 2007.

27 See, “Burma: Violent Attacks on Human Rights Activists,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 24, 2007; See also, Network for Democracy and Development, The White Shirts: How the USDA Will Become the New Face of Burma’s Dictatorship (Mae Sariang, Thailand: May 2006); “Security Presence Stifles Protests in Myanmar’s Biggest City,” Associated Press, August 29, 2007 (reporting that “Myanmar’s military government employed menacing gangs of civilians to keep watch at key points in the country’s biggest city Wednesday as it sought to crush a rare wave of protests by pro-democracy activists against fuel price hikes...Three trucks, each carrying about 20 tough-looking young men, were parked on either side of the road Wednesday, watching for any protesters in what has become a familiar scene on the city’s streets over the past week.”); Daniel Howden, “Junta ‘frees prisoners for anti-protest mobs,’” Independent (London), August 29, 2007; Larry Jagan, “Fuel Price Policy Explodes in Burma,” Asia Times, August 23, 2007.

28 Glenn Kessler, “U.S. Condemns Burmese Arrests of 13 Dissidents,” Washington Post, August 23, 2007.

29 “Burma: Arbitrary Detention of Protesters,” Human Rights Watch news release, August 22, 2007.

30 “Myanmar Junta Squashes More Protests in Yangon,” Reuters, August 23, 2007; “Myanmar Protesters March Despite Arrests,” Associated Press, August 23, 2007.

31 “Arrests Thwart New Myanmar Protests,” Associated Press, August 24, 2007; “Myanmar Arrests 20 More Protesters,” Agence France Presse, August 24, 2007; “USDA Members Bash, Arrest 30 activists,” Democratic Voice of Burma, August 24, 2007.

32 In 2005, Su Su Nway became the first person to successfully prosecute local officials for the imposition of forced labor, a common human rights abuse in Burma. Su Su Nway, who suffers from a heart condition, was subsequently sentenced to one and a half years’ imprisonment in October 2005 on charges of “using abusive language against the authorities” and released from prison on June 6, 2006. In 2006, she was awarded the John Humphrey Freedom Award by the Canadian human rights group Rights and Democracy. See

33 “Dozens detained over new protest in Myanmar,” Agence France Presse, August 28, 2007. AAPPB, “List of detainees” (listing 20 detainees from the protest).

34 Nora Boustany, “Burmese Authorities Arrest Two Prominent Dissidents: Roundup Continues in Wake of Protests,” Washington Post, November 14, 2007.

35 “8 Myanmar Dissidents Dodge Arrest,” Associated Press, September 1, 2007; “Myanmar Steps Up Manhunt for Activists,” Agence France Presse, September 3, 2007.

36 Seth Mydans, “Protests Persist in Myanmar, Despite Arrests by Junta,” New York Times, August 31, 2007; “Two Men Arrested in Taunggok,” Democratic Voice of Burma, August 31, 2007; “Twelve Elected MPs Stage Peaceful Protest,” Democratic Voice of Burma, August 30, 2007; “Myanmar Fuel Protests Spread to Northwest City,” Reuters, August 28, 2007.

37 “Myanmar Protest Hits Junta Leader’s Hometown as Calls for UN Action Intensify,” Associated Press, September 4, 2007.