Last month, in a rare show of public dissent in military-run Myanmar, a dozen people marched in Yangon to protest rising food prices, frequent electricity cuts, corruption and mismanagement of the economy.

After their brief march downtown, the protesters were detained, interrogated and made to promise they would not stage another demonstration.

Such responses to all signs of dissent are to be expected from Myanmar’s ruling junta, but what was unknown was how the public would react.

“What we tried on February 26 was a test balloon,” said Win Naing, an independent politician who was one of the chief organizers behind the march. “I wanted to see how much the people wanted to join us, but to be frank, I don’t think the people were ready.”

Western observers often marvel at the Myanmar people’s capacity to endure economic privations, frequently the outcome of economic mismanagement by the military-led government. Today’s rising inflation in the country is a good example.

Last April, in what appeared to be a move to placate widespread discontent within the civil service for being force-marched to Myanmar’s new capital of Naypyitaw in late 2005, the government hiked government salaries by as much as 500 per cent.

Naturally, inflation swiftly followed. One Yangon-based market researcher estimated that the price of high-quality rice rose 100 per cent last year while the price of chillies rose 200 per cent, pepper 300 per cent and onions 250 per cent.

Although the government estimated inflation at 10.7 per cent in 2006, Western embassies said it was closer to 50 per cent. And prices are still rising.

“Last month, the price of chilies was 10,000 kyat [8 dollars] per petah [1.6 kilograms], but this month, it’s 12,000 kyat,” said Aye Aye, a vegetable seller at Hledan market in Yangon.

Meanwhile, salaries for non-government workers remain miserably low, averaging about 1,000 kyat a day or 25,000 kyat a month.

Some factories in Yangon have reportedly started providing their workers with free lunches because so many were skipping their midday meal to save money.

Children working on road-construction projects to help supplement their meagre family incomes are a common sight in Myanmar. Shwe Shwe Aung, 12, is spending her summer vacation hauling baskets of stones to repave the road to Mandalay in the Daik U district of Bego State.

“I need the money to pay for my school tuition,” said Shwe Shwe, who earns 900 kyat a day.

With rising inflation, low wages and a seemingly uncaring government, any other country could expect an explosion of protests and riots, but in Myanmar, the people in general have kept quiet over the past two decades, and for good reason.

In 1988, unbearable economic conditions did spark nationwide demonstrations that eventually forced former military strong man Ne Win to step down.

Ne Win – father of the “Burmese Way to Socialism,” which impoverished the country from 1962 to 1988 – had demonetized more than half the kyat currency in circulation in 1987 in one of his unique solutions to combating inflation, going on the theory, no money, no inflation.

The military’s bloody crackdown on the popular demonstrations in September 1988, which left an estimated 3,000 dead, has left a lasting impression.

Myanmar has essentially been under martial law since then with public gatherings of more than five people banned unless they have received official permission. Crackdowns on all shows of dissent were intensified after the 1990 general election, which was won by the National League for Democracy (NLD) Party of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

The regime has ignored that election results for the past 17 years, arguing that a new constitution would be needed before an elected government could take over. Another general election might be held by 2008 although no date has been set.

In this context the small, short-lived protest against inflation was an unusual event, but one that has also demonstrated that things are not yet bad enough to spark mass riots.

“They need more motivation,” Win Naing said. “The people are still afraid because they know they are vulnerable to strong reactions from the authorities and they are tired of making sacrifices.”