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For military junta, a history of shrugging off sanctions and criticism

Questions and answers about the protests in Burma:

Q. What touched off the demonstrations?

A. The trigger was the military regime's hike of fuel prices, which caused the cost of public transport - used by most people in Burma - to rise. But the protests also reflect longstanding discontent with the repressive military regime, and were initiated by veteran prodemocracy activists.

Q. What do the demonstrators want?

A. The original demands were to lower fuel prices and approve other measures to ease economic burdens in one of Asia's poorest nations. But they also include apologies for mistreating monks during the demonstrations. More important, they have broadened to call for the release of all political prisoners, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. There is no official leadership of the protest movement, however, so the demands are not universally recognized.

Q. Why are monks involved and what role do they play in society?

A. Buddhist monks have traditionally led movements for social and political change. They were active in a failed 1988 prodemocracy uprising, as well as 1990 protests that were put down over several months with raids on pagodas and the arrests of hundreds of monks. The majority of the nation's predominantly Buddhist population sees the monks as the conscience of society.

Q. Will the military government acquiesce to international pressure? Who has influence on the junta and why?

A. Burma's government so far has been able to shrug off harsh criticism and sanctions applied by the United States and other Western nations. It has survived by cultivating investment in its potentially vast oil and gas reserves. Neighboring China and India maintain relations with the junta because of Burma's location and resources. China is the regime's main ally, supplying the most aid and diplomatic muscle at international forums.

Q. The US government announced sanctions on Burma. Will they have an impact? What is the history of the United States in Burma?

A. As long as the military government can turn to other sources for support, any sanctions are likely to be ineffective. Some analysts argue that by completely ostracizing the regime, Washington loses any chance at influencing it or elements in the military to make policy changes. To Americans, the country is best known for its World War II role as a back road into China. Its most famous citizens are Suu Kyi, the 1990 Nobel peace laureate, and the late U Thant, who served as UN secretary general.

Q. What does Burma have that the world wants?

A. The country's location on the Indian Ocean makes it a desirable outlet to the sea for its northern neighbor, China. That fact makes it important for China's regional rival, India. Burma is rich in natural resources, with offshore natural gas topping the list. But it also has valuable mineral deposits and is one of the world's biggest suppliers of gem stones. It is also the world's second-biggest producer of opium and its derivative, heroin, as well as a major exporter of methamphetamine. The government contends that it is trying to suppress the drug trade.

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