It was being called the Saffron Revolution. Smuggled images of Buddhist monks thronging the streets of ancient Yangon opened a rare, but brief, window into one of the world's more backward and cruel regimes.
For nine days, the world watched as monks in saffron-colored robes led ever growing crowds on marches challenging the military junta that rules Myanmar (known more traditionally as Burma). Thousands were shaking off two decades of fear to join the monks. Myanmar's generals appeared caught off guard and even more unaware of the power of the Internet. Unlike past protests, this one played out very publicly, as photographs, video, and accounts of the protests—and the inevitable repression—blanketed cyberspace and the airwaves.
On the 10th day, the crowds were even larger. But this time, the monks were largely—and eerily—absent. Overnight, the junta's security forces had raided many monasteries, beating and dragging away untold numbers of monks. The generals had returned to their favorite playbook, greeting marchers with batons, tear gas, and bullets.
By Thursday afternoon, the streets of Yangon were littered with blood-spattered sandals left behind by fleeing protesters. At least 10 people were killed, with rumors of many more. The junta was still treading rather carefully with the monks, who have come to embody the nation's conscience. The monks already provide many of the social services that the generals have decided are beneath them—including AIDS clinics, orphanages, and schools.
If history is any guide, it will get even worse for any Burmese who continue to protest. During the last sustained anti-junta protests in 1988, several thousand were killed. And the government's belated move to cut off Internet access and confiscate mobile phones presages greater violence.
With most of the world offering no more than rhetorical condemnation and symbolic sanctions, it appears that the newfound courage of the Burmese people will be rewarded only by bloodshed. In today's Myanmar, happy endings are rare indeed.