Monday, September 29, 2008

First anniversary of the 2007 crackdown in Burma

A new piece of evidence came to light that weighs on an old question this first anniversary of the brutal crackdown in Burma against protesting monks and townsfolk.* The evidence concerns a possible -- indeed seemingly likely -- connection between the Burmese uprising of September 2007 and the Tibetan protests of March 2008. As longtime Jotman readers know, I have blogged extensively about both events (see my Burma 2007 page; Tibet 2008 page).

One question I have been trying to answer -- which may well relate to Rangoon as much as to Lhasa -- is: What is the strategic principle by which China's security planners operate?

Perhaps the answer was lying in the streets.

Myanmar 2007
One clue to China's own modus operandi concerns how its ally, Myanmar dealt with the peaceful protests in September 2007. How had Myanmar prepared for protesters? With troops, indeed. But also with truckloads of bricks, as these reports indicate:
Another truck pulled up, full of bricks. Three men in the back began throwing the bricks on the road - ammunition for the protesters. But riot police were already trudging up Sule Pagoda Road. . . . Not one protester threw a brick at the soldiers. The truck roared off again. - Time
In chaotic scenes in the city centre, protesters also stopped a truck carrying bricks and used them to pelt a police post near the Traders Hotel. - The Age
This group of people had gotten very angry because the military had begun beating the monks. So they started throwing stones and bricks at the riot police and soldiers. . . At this point I tried to request to the people not to do violence. Although, of course, the troops had started the violence. . . - Monk leader Ashin Kovida, interviewed by Jotman
The security principle on the streets of Rangoon was relatively simple.

Were it to appear that otherwise peaceful protesters had "cast the first stone," a violent -- and presumably effective -- government crackdown is easier to justify. Domestic opinion in the wake of state violence is crucial and world opinion matters too. One core principle guiding Myanmar security planners: How do we incite peaceful protesters to violence?

Lhasa 2008 (and some new evidence)
At the time, there were suggestions that the Myanmar regime was getting its advice on how to handle the peaceful protests from Beijing (We have no reason think otherwise). Are we to suppose Burma's modus operandi for handling peaceful protests differs in principle from that of Beijing? Perhaps it should not come as any surprise that some testimony and video evidence regarding the riots in Lhasa seems suggestive of similar tactics. Allegations have been made that stones or bricks had been put in position in advance in Lhasa prior to the riot scenes. Commentator Mr. Chen Pokong said:

In this year's protest, the riot scene was quite similar to that of 1989. . .

The actions seemed well planned and coordinated, and were conducted with skill. At the crossroads near the Ramoche Monastery, someone prepared in advance many stones of a similar size, each weighing a couple of kilograms. These stones magically escaped the attention of numerous policemen and plainclothes agents who flooded the city.**

The conspicuous presence of stones is alleged by an expose of a video which shows a helmeted motorcyclist getting stones thrown at his head (described in this post).** The video commentary asks:
Is the street full of stones? No! Most of the stones used by the attackers are around the motorcycle! In fact the first attacker picked up a large stone right beside the motorcycle!
My post links to the video: you can watch it and decide what you think.

What else do we know the history of security planning in China concerning Tibet? China successfully quashed rebellions in 1989. Those protests occurred in two locations: Beijing and Lhasa, Tibet. Here's an account of the Lhasa protest of 1989:

In his "Events in Lhasa March 2-10, 1989", the Chinese journalist Tang Daxian revealed how the CCP orchestrated violence as part of a plan to suppress the 1989 protests in Tibet.

According to the article, "On the dawn of March 5, the Armed Police in Tibet received the action order from the Chief Commander of Armed Police headquarter, Mr. Li Lianxiu.…The Special Squad should immediately assign 300 members to be disguised as ordinary citizens and Tibetan monks, entering the Eight-Corner Street and other riot spots in Lhasa, to support plain-clothes police to complete the task.

"Burn the Scripture Pagoda at the northeast of Dazhao Temple. Smash the rice store in the business district, incite citizens to rob rice and food, attack the Tibet-Gansu Trading Company. Encourage people to rob store products, but, only at the permitted locations."

President Hu Jintao was Party Chief of the Tibet Autonomous Region at the time.

A foreign traveler who goes by the name of Kadfly was staying in Lhasa, Tibet at the time of the crackdown. As it happened, Kadfly was the only Westerner to "live-blog" the protests and crackdown. As there was only one Western journalist in Tibet at the time of the uprising, Kadfly's own efforts to chronicle the events of March 2008 on his blog are likely to be of lasting significance.***

I recently emailed Kadfly with a question. I asked Kadfly: "Did you happen to see any evidence piles of stones or bricks might have been put out to encourage stone-throwing?"

I thought Kadfly's reply was interesting. He wrote:
My friend and I did see a crate of stones on Beijing Street where people got their "ammo" to throw at the riot police. Not sure how it got there. I heard speculation at the hotel that night that a truck had driven by, dropped off the crate, and sped off. This was all before I got there though, so I definitely did not see this.
In Burma soldiers put bricks where protesters were expected to assemble -- an encouragement to violence. By contrast, we have been told that the Tibetan protesters in Lhasa went berserk. Were the Tibetan people prone to violence, whereas Burmese people are more peaceful? Or might the real difference here have concerned the regimes? We know Beijing to be more sophisticated than Myanmar. Might the protests have become violent quickly in Tibet because China planned for them to become so -- not just by dumping stones as in Burma -- but also by supplying rioters? A blog post examining this question from various angles -- including input from Kadfly-- is presented here.

In the aftermath of the unrest in Tibet, China masterfully turned a regional protest movement to its own advantage. This much seems increasingly evident: fires, looting and murders in Tibet have given Beijing an excuse to sweep away anti-Party elements lurking in the attic, launch its own War on Terror, and discredit competing news sources.


Since I wrote those words, Cyclone Nagris wreaked havoc on the Irrawaddy Delta of Burma, earthquakes destroyed a region of South-Western China, the Burmese marked the twentieth anniversary of the 1988 massacre of protesters, Beijing successfully hosted the Olympic Games, and now the long-suffering people of Burma are marking the anniversary of the crackdown last year.

Where and when will piles of bricks or stones next appear?
*Portions of the following post were posted here on April 4, 2008. I have re-posted the original material along with new testimony from an eyewitness to the Lhasa uprising.
** The best place to view these references is here.
*** The updated portion of the post in which the new evidence is presented begins with this paragraph, continuing to the end of the section.

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