The outside world makes the mistake of assuming that the junta is amenable to negotiation on what we regard as common values: democracy, respect for human rights, protection from the arbitrary exercise of power. This is simply not the case.
Ne Win, Burma's dictator from 1962 to 1988, had blind faith in '9' as his lucky number... The hardline suppression of the latest protests began on the same date as the 1988 crackdown, with the added bonus of a third '9': 18/9/2007 (2+7= 9).
It is unlikely that UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari's programme included consultations with the junta's astrologers, and yet these are the people who hold the key to the leader's strategy. (Article by Tom White, "UK's cultural attachÃ© in Burma during the 1988 protests")
Frightening, but it makes sense to me. Something I realised, is that the army in Burma has been in power since 1962 - forty-five years. This means that by now the army has become a generational inheritance - those in the army now were most likely born with their father planning on them following in his path. In Burma, the army also controls much of the economy so it's a viable career that combines political and financial security.
So by now, there are the basics of a caste: hereditary social and economic position, likelihood of in-marrying (I'm guessing), and an ideology to support it (by all accounts, a mishmash of nationalism and pseudo-feudalism). Also, apparently there was a tradition of "pagoda slaves" in Burma and Thailand. This could perhaps give the army an ideological basis for their use of forced labour which is apparently quite common.
in the final stages of the 41-day uprising in 1988, democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi privately admitted that a split in the army seemed the only remaining hope of overthrowing the dictatorship.
Also, very interesting to read, is this eyewitness account by "A Buddhism student" (BBC). Some quotes:
Those who took part were from the younger generation of monks, who hadn't experienced the events of 1988 and thought that they couldn't be attacked.
The older monks were too frightened and hesitant. Those who had responsible positions in the monastery were particularly against anybody taking part in protests.
They issued orders to other monks not to take part. They were saying 'don't do anything, if you leave, you will be disassociated'.
The middle-level monks were sandwiched between the senior monks and the young ones. Many sneaked in and out.
The whole thing started as a religious movement. It was not an organised democratic movement and there was no intention whatsoever for it to be turned into one. Monks were adamant about it.
They knew that there is no point in asking the generals for freedom. They knew that they don't have guns and can't beat the army. All they wanted to do was show the world what their situation is and that they are prepared to die.
They were very hopeful about the UN envoy coming to Burma. But they were quite surprised to hear that he met Aung San Suu Kyi.
They love and respect her, but they felt that this time it is about them and that the UN envoy should be speaking to them. They felt that it's a distraction from them while they are being shot at and need protection.
This is important I think: the first quote at the top of this post, and the one about the UN meeting Aung San Suu Kyi, point to one thing: the deficiencies of an ethnocentric approach to negotiating with the Burmese regime. I wonder if the UN envoy actually tried to meet the monks; maybe he did. Maybe the regime allow him to see Aung San Suu Kyi because ultimately they know that she has less power than the monks.