The sudden fuel price increases that triggered street protests and a political crackdown in Burma in recent days highlighted not only the country’s economic woes and the incompetence of the ruling generals but also the country’s political problems.

The military rulers have made the same kind of blunder as occurred in 1987 when General Ne Win’s government suddenly announced the demonetisation of bank notes.

The cancellation of bank notes and Ne Win’s speech in August 1987, in which he proposed “economic reform” and admitted “mistakes” in the past, only provided ammunition to the outraged public and dissidents who were fed up with the socialist regime. A year later, Ne Win saw his own demise.

The current regime’s announcement of huge fuel price increases was greeted with shock and was followed by widespread street demonstrations in Burma’s former capital. As in 1988, the protests quickly turned into political demonstrations. A cowed public bravely took to the streets in pockets of demonstration in Rangoon and provinces as far away as central Burma. Some demonstrators even gave political speeches or held pictures of detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her father, General Aung San, the late independence hero. The demonstrations are clearly not about the fuel price increases; Suu Kyi and her father have nothing in common with the price of gasoline.

The demonstrations are manifestations of a fight for freedom. The Burmese were waiting for the spark that would ignite a political uprising. It remains to be seen, however, how the fragile protest movement can resist the brutal nature of the regime.

As usual, the regime has reacted with provocation, attacks, arrests and the detention of key pro-democracy leaders including Min Ko Naing, a former leader of the 1988 uprising. Its actions can only invite more trouble and an international outcry, nothing unusual for the regime. However, the junta is determined to quell the protests with brute force.

As the protests continue, foreign and Burmese analysts are looking into the causes of the fuel price increases. Some say the regime has been considering a privatisation of the fuel distribution system in Burma and a probable sale of retail outlets to a private company. This might have caused the regime to increase fuel prices to make the chosen company initially profitable.

Some theories are more intriguing, however. One of these suggests that military leaders who wanted to postpone the final session of the National Convention, which has been drafting guidelines for a new constitution, deliberately increased the fuel prices to provoke public outrage.

The National Convention, attended by handpicked delegates, has faced some resistance from ethnic groups over issues of autonomy. Senior officials told foreign journalists – who were granted visas but then not allowed into the country – that tension has been rising. Contradictory reports also came out of Burma that National Convention closing remarks and speeches have been prepared.

The most interesting theory is that some army leaders who wanted to outdo Burma’s paramount leader, Senior General Than Shwe, calculatingly announced the fuel price increases to trigger unrest and riots.

It is impossible to know the real story behind the increases since the regime made no prior announcement, nor did it provide any proper explanation for them. Now the regime is busy hunting down the street protesters, labelling them “agitators”, prompting the question: who is the real agitator?

The regime might well have anticipated the social and political unrest, putting its hired thugs and security officials on alert to intimidate, attack and arrest pro-democracy activists. Some analysts and journalists in Rangoon say that the street protests and rapid reaction by students and former activists gave the excuse to the regime to arrest prominent pro-democracy leaders like Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and many others. Min Ko Naing, who had spent 16 years in solitary confinement, had been telling colleagues in exile that the regime has been looking for an excuse to again detain him and his comrades.

As in 1988, a scuffle between a group of civilians and university students finally turned into an anti-government demonstration. Why? Dissidents and ordinary Burmese were looking for a political reason to confront the military regime.

The street demonstrations in Rangoon this week are a clear reminder of the 1988 uprising. Twenty years on, Burma remains a political time bomb.

Aung Zaw is the editor of the “Irrawaddy” magazine.