The situation in Burma dramatically worsened at the end of 2007 when huge protests took place in the cities of Rangoon and Mandalay after the government raised fuel prices by nearly 500% in mid-August. The protests evolved into anti-government, pro-democracy demonstrations with terrifying consequences. Led by Buddhist monks, it is estimated that at least 10,000 people took to the streets demanding democracy for Burma. The Burmese government arrested and detained more than 150 peaceful civilian protestors and nearly 3,000 monks and accused them of involvement in terrorism.
In May 2008, Cyclone Nargis heaped yet more misery on the people of Burma. The devastating effects of the cyclone were made so much worse by the Burma regime’s inadequate and damaging response to the disaster, which saw them initially blocking foreign aid and arresting activists who were helping on the ground. Since the end of 2008, harsh, long sentences have been handed down to those involved in the Saffron Revolution – in many cases, serving up to 65 years for their humanitarian attempts to help others affected by the cyclone. Many prominent activists are being kept in military dog kennels as punishment.
In May 2009, Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition to the Burmese Junta, was arrested and charged with violating the terms of her house arrest, after receiving an uninvited American guest. British PM Gordon Brown stated, “This is a purely political sentence designed to prevent her from taking part in the regime’s planned elections next year.”
In August 2009, conflict broke out in Shan State in northern Burma. As many as 10,000 Burmese civilians fled from Junta troops to Yunnan province in neighbouring China.
Then on November 7th 2010 the first elections in two decades were held in Burma but sadly they were a long way from being free and fair. The ruling junta ensured that their proxy party, the USDP would be declared the winner by making it extremely expensive and difficult for opposition parties to field candidates. In addition more than 2,200 political prisoners, many of whom should have played a significant role in the opposition movement, were kept behind bars, which further underlined the invalidity of the poll.
A few days after the election was over the junta decided to finally release Aung San Suu Kyi from her years of house arrest. Her release was met with huge celebrations in Burma and around the world and it brought a renewed sense of optimism to the democratic movement.
This optimism continued into 2012 when a prisoner amnesty was announced in which included the conditional release of around 800 prisoners. This and other steps such as the signing of a peace treaty with the rebel group the Karen National Union, are seen by some as concrete examples of the new government’s willingness to reform and re-engage with the wider world. However, many observers are more cautious in their enthusiasm as the released political prisoners have not actually been pardoned so are still at risk of re-arrest and this, they believe does not constitute real reform.