Inside Myanmar's violent crackdown

Eyewitness accounts from the uprising led by Buddhist monks, and how the junta silenced the city after days of bloodshed.

Published October 3, 2007 10:58AM (EDT)

It is Friday afternoon in Yangon, the former Burmese capital, and the city of 5 million broods silently under heavy rain clouds. The last clashes between demonstrators and soldiers happened in the morning. In Okkalapa, a slum neighborhood on the city's eastern outskirts, citizens blocked the path of troops as they attempted to storm yet another Buddhist monastery.

The ruling junta's security forces are attempting to seal off as many monasteries and temples as possible with barricades and barbed wire to prevent the monks from sparking further demonstrations. The strategy has already succeeded around Burma's national symbol, the Shwedagon, a giant golden pagoda in downtown Yangon. It shimmers in the soft dawn rays of the tropical sun, silent and completely devoid of people. In the areas surrounding the Shwedagon, where the pagoda rises on a hill surrounded by a tangle of markets and monasteries, barricades block the access roads to Burma's holiest site. Elite government troops are now positioned behind those barricades.

Curious passersby find themselves facing the soldiers' Kalashnikov automatic rifles. "Just keep going, for heaven's sake, and don't look them in the eye," one local resident urges. "They shoot without warning." The soldiers have their steel helmets pulled down deep over their faces, and are all wearing orange-red scarves tied around their shirt collars.

Convoys of four or five trucks at a time constantly patrol the temple district. Young recruits sit on the truck beds, pointing their rifles at people on the streets whenever they feel threatened.

The situation is similar at the Sule Pagoda about two kilometers away, in Yangon's decaying business district, where heavy iron gates now block the doors to the temple complex's prayer and congregation rooms.

Soldiers from the government's elite 77th Brigade -- its toughest fighters -- are positioned under the trees lining some of the city's boulevards. A tense calm lasts until 3 p.m., but then the students arrive. Some are wearing the longyi, the traditional sarong worn by men in Burma, and simple rubber sandals, while others wear frayed jeans and sneakers. Buddhist monks, in their red and saffron-yellow robes -- who have hitherto dominated the images of the resistance against the military government -- are nowhere to be seen.

Yangon still reveals the architectural vestiges of the British Empire in neighborhoods like the one surrounding the Sule Pagoda. Five-story apartment buildings are built of red brick, and yet the plaster is crumbling from their façades, the asphalt on the streets is in need of repair, and heaps of garbage are piled up in the side streets. The shops sell video recorders, television sets and cheap knickknacks, all made in China. The local residents, who are comparatively well-off, stand on their balconies applauding the students.

The students have prepared their strategies well. They appear in groups of 200 demonstrators at a time, advancing toward Anawrahta Street, a bustling commercial strip, where they occupy several intersections at the same time. Then they confront the security forces in their defensive positions around the Sule Pagoda.

A student leader calls out: "Give us freedom! We want democracy!" Residents shout: "Soldiers, don't shoot at the people!" But the soldiers shoot nonetheless.

The first shots whip through the humid afternoon air around 4 p.m. and the students quickly scatter. They run into the next street, which is named after Aung San, one of Burma's national heroes and the father of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Soon they block the next intersection on Aung San Street. A few demonstrators redirect traffic, keeping the street clear to provide the crowd with an escape route from the soldiers' bullets. The leaders chant, once again: "Give us democracy!" The crowd responds with the same chorus as before: "Soldiers, don't shoot at the people!" And the soldiers shoot again.

The cycle continues until nightfall. "Now we will come back every day," says one of the leaders, "unless they shoot us all."

These eyewitness accounts from Yangon describe the most recent chapter in a struggle that began as a clash between two powers that couldn't be more asymmetrical: thousands of monks in their colorful robes, walking barefoot or in rubber sandals, armed with the rice bowls they use to beg for alms, facing off against soldiers armed with automatic weapons and tear gas, and police officers wielding clubs and riot shields.

It is a struggle for power in a country full of pagodas and rich in natural resources, one that has been ruled by a succession of military regimes for the last 45 years. The generals have shown few scruples in using deadly force against their own people, a population that has somehow managed to intimidate them at the same time. Two years ago, the ruling junta moved the country's capital to Naypyidaw, a remote location in the jungle 189 miles north of Yangon, where they believed themselves safe against uprisings.

But now the generals no longer trust even their own regular soldiers. Instead, they are bringing in elite troops who were stationed on the country's borders to subdue the rebellious monks with beatings and bloodshed. Since these special forces arrived in Yangon, the direct threat to the regime appears to be over, at least temporarily. After surrounding key monasteries in Yangon and the central Burmese city of Mandalay on Thursday, the government declared the areas off limits the next day. Hundreds of monks had already been arrested by then. Eyewitnesses report seeing the soldiers beat some of the monks and drag them from their temples, leaving behind pools of blood in the monks' ransacked quarters. All remaining monks were placed under house arrest.

"We will fight until we have achieved democracy," representatives of the All Burma Monks Alliance, an organization established in September, announced. Despite their initial defeat, the Buddhist monks remain resolute.

This week, however, there were no signs of further protests in Yangon. Thousands of heavily armed soldiers patrolled the streets, stopping young men on foot and in cars, searching for cameras that could be used to get photographs and footage to the international media. Barbed wire barricades blocked off Shwedagon Pagoda, with soldiers stationed at the four entrances.

Witnesses in Mandalay told the Associated Press that security forces had arrested dozens of students who had staged a street protest on Sunday. The Democratic Voice of Burma, a Norway-based opposition news organization, estimated that 138 had been killed in the violence and around 6,000 detained.

Burma is a deeply Buddhist country where more than 600,000 monks and tens of thousands of nuns live in monasteries and temples. Every morning they walk from house to house, barefoot and carrying empty rice bowls, begging for alms.

The regime's thugs made their biggest mistake at the beginning of the protests, on Sept. 5. In an effort to prevent the protests from spreading, they began beating a group of demonstrating monks in the central Burmese city of Pakokku. Shots were fired, and the police arrested the monks, tore off their robes and threw them in jail.

The All Burma Monks Alliance, a previously unknown group, made its voice heard only a few days later, demanding an apology from the police and the release of their fellow monks. What began as a small protest soon spread like wildfire.

Besides the country's 400,000-strong military, the clergy is the only well-organized force in the country. At first tens of thousands of monks took to the streets in Mandalay, chanting Buddhist sutras and carrying statues of the Buddha and religious pennants. The demonstrations soon shut down the city of Sittwe in western Burma and later the surrounding Rakhine state.

By the time the protests reached Yangon, the Saffron Revolution had turned into a massive protest against Burma's grim and repressive military junta. By this stage, the monks had expanded on their initial demands of reversing hikes in fuel prices and releasing political prisoners -- they began calling for a national dialogue with the opposition pro-democracy movement.

Local residents who lined the monks' protest routes are accustomed to seeing the clergy play a role in shaping Burmese politics. In the days of the monarchy, in the 19th century, they performed a mediating function between the government and the people, taking up positions on both sides. They would typically defend the king when he reached decisions they saw as necessary but unpopular, such as tax increases, but they would obstruct him if they felt that he was abusing his power. Buddhist monks have consistently been a powerful force in the Burmese state.

But the generals refused to give in. On the day before the bloodbaths began, Religious Affairs Minister Thura Myint Maung knelt before the monks' leaders and lowered his head to the ground, a gesture of respect for the clergy. But then he declared war on the monks, making it clear that the regime would show no mercy.

Ironically, the monks were not the ones who had begun the protests. Dissidents from an underground group known as the 88 Generation Students, led by men like Ko Ko Gyi, 45, and Min Ko Naing, 44, were behind the initial demonstrations.

As students they led mass protests in 1988 against the military regime, which, with its "Burmese Way to Socialism," had driven the Southeast Asian country into international isolation and economic chaos since 1962. The generals quashed protest marches on Sept. 18, 1988, in a massacre that claimed at least 3,000 lives, then robbed the opposition leader and later winner of the Nobel Peace Prize Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) of their election victory. The student leaders were thrown into prison. "It was 16 years of hell," Gyi said last summer in Yangon. And yet the military never managed to break the two men's will.

After being released from prison last year, the dissidents established the 88 Generation Students as an informal network and began organizing events such as peaceful prayer meetings in Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda and readings and gatherings in other cities.

When the junta raised gasoline prices by 100 percent without warning on Aug. 15, it became a rallying cry for the opposition. Four days later, veterans of the 1988 student protests took to the streets once again in various cities and towns throughout the country, often alone or in groups of only two or three people. Most were arrested immediately. But the Burmese people soon followed suit.

"It was the straw that broke the camel's back," says Bertil Lintner, a Swedish expert on Asia and Burma. "The people simply have nothing left to lose. They are hungry, and they have been bled dry." What makes their hatred of the regime even stronger is constant talk of the junta living in the lap of luxury, squandering public revenue on weapons and senseless prestige projects.

The monks and the pro-democracy activists had long coordinated their activities behind the scenes. The monks would stage the protests while the people would form human chains.

By Saturday, Sept. 15, the military leaders must have realized how serious the situation had become for them. Monks were marching along University Avenue in Yangon. There, in a house with a view of Inya Lake, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, 62, has been under house arrest for more than 11 years.

Suu Kyi had returned to Burma from abroad in 1988, and as the daughter of national hero Aung San, she was soon at the head of the protest movement. In 1990, Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy in free elections, winning more than 80 percent of the vote. But the junta, which had ordered the massacre in the streets of Yangon in 1988, declared the results invalid.

As the demonstrators marched toward Suu Kyi's house two weeks ago, it set off a panic in the new jungle capital, Naypyidaw. Would the monks liberate the Nobel Prize winner? On Sunday the junta's leader, Than Shwe, ordered his family to pack their bags, and early in the week they took a charter flight to Bangkok. That was when the regime began the "extreme action" it had earlier threatened.

The regime brought in its elite troops from the borders. When the troops arrived in Yangon on Tuesday, the government imposed a curfew on the city. Any remaining hopes that the soldiers would shy away from shooting at monks were quickly dashed. On Wednesday, after initial warning shots were fired over the heads of the demonstrators, government troops began shooting directly into the crowds. The dead and injured included a foreign victim, Japanese photographer Kenji Nagai, who was executed by a soldier as he lay on the ground.

The regime launched a propaganda campaign against the protesters at the same time. In an attack on the NLD, the government-run New Light of Myanmar wrote: "Saboteurs from inside and outside the nation and some foreign radio stations, who are jealous of national peace and development, have been making instigative acts through lies to cause internal instability and civil commotion." The media was quickly filled with the regime's appeals to the Burmese: "We favor stability," "We favor peace," "We oppose unrest and violence." The government-controlled press was, of course, quick to place blame abroad for the unrest, writing that the BBC and the Voice of America are broadcasting "a sky-full of lies."

On Thursday afternoon, soldiers combed the Traders Hotel in downtown Yangon for foreign journalists who had sneaked into the country on tourist visas. Telephone lines to other countries were cut off and Internet connections shut down. As night fell over Yangon on Friday and the students ended their protests, the generals seemed to have won the first round.

Nevertheless, the junta is still a long way from winning the fight. "They are extremely hunkered down, delusional, paranoid and probably afraid at the moment about what could possibly happen," David Mathieson, an expert on Burma with the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch, told the New York Times.

The country's military leaders would presumably prefer to persist in their isolation. They have denied an entry visa several times to Ibrahim Gambari, the United Nations special envoy to Burma, in the past, and this time around they were no more willing to let him into the country. It wasn't until Thursday night that they finally agreed to meet with the U.N. representative.

Since arriving in the country on Saturday, Gambari has been allowed to meet with Suu Kyi, with whom he had a one-hour talk on Sunday, and has also been given an appointment to meet with junta leader Than Shwe on Tuesday. Gambari had originally hoped to meet Than Shwe on Monday, but the regime postponed the meeting, sending Gambari on a government-sponsored trip to the north of the country instead.

The junta's decision to let Gambari enter the country came in response to collective international outrage, at least among Western nations, over the junta's attempts to violently suppress the Saffron Revolution. German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the government's use of soldiers, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for tougher sanctions. The United States imposed visa bans on Burmese leaders and froze foreign assets of senior junta members, as far as it could. But little more than a delicate clearing of the throat was heard from Burma's neighbor to the north, rising global power China.

"We hope that all parties in the Myanmar issue will maintain restraint and appropriately handle the problems that have currently arisen," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu breathed into the microphone, as if Burma had just experienced a minor marital quarrel.

But Beijing's actions in New York were not nearly as soft-spoken. Last week the Chinese ambassador to the U.N. voted against a proposed Security Council resolution condemning Burma. "We are not supporting the Burmese military, but rather stability," said a foreign policy advisor to the Communist Party and Burma expert in Beijing, seeking to downplay the embarrassing vote.

China has benefited for many years from the leaden calm that has prevailed in Burma. When the West slapped economic sanctions on Yangon after the 1988 massacre, the Chinese jumped in to fill the void. Relations have blossomed ever since. More than a million immigrants from throughout the People's Republic have already settled, more or less legally, in Burma.

For the Chinese, Burma is a land of rich prizes, including oil and natural gas, natural resources, and timber. China mines nickel, copper and coal in Burma. According to the nonprofit organization Earthrights International, at least 14 Chinese companies are building hydroelectric power plants in the country. Trade between the two nations approached $1.5 billion last year. Beijing's state-owned energy groups plan to exploit oil and gas fields off the Burmese coast and have already signed agreements with the junta. Another project in the works calls for the construction of 1,480 miles of oil and gas pipelines from Burma's western Rakhine state all the way to Kunming, the capital of China's southern Yunnan province.

Economic ties are already so close that the Chinese yuan is treated as legal tender, in addition to the Burmese currency, the kyat, in the northern border regions. Sections of the old royal capital Mandalay, with their Chinese shops, apartment buildings and shopping centers, could already be mistaken for neighborhoods in a Chinese city. Close to one-third of Mandalay's residents are believed to be Chinese.

China is also providing Burma's generals with weapons and materiel. The Burmese have already purchased about $2 billion worth of helicopters, aircraft, artillery guns, warships and tanks from their northern neighbor.

But by generously supporting the Burmese junta, the Chinese risk provoking the anger of the international community. With the Olympics less than a year away, it is not in Beijing's interest to appear as the protector of an inhumane regime, one whose atrocities are all too reminiscent of the brutal suppression of its own student uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1989. "It's a problem for us," officials in Beijing quietly admit.

To head off a potential conflict, the Chinese government facilitated a secret meeting in June between U.S. diplomats and representatives of the junta in Beijing, where the Americans hoped to convince the Burmese to release opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Chinese officials also invited opposition groups to take part in informal talks.

But by the end of last week, Chinese diplomats were not convinced that the monks' uprising could cause the junta to fall from power. If it does, Beijing said, it "hopes for a smooth transition." If the generals are driven out after all, said the Communist Party's foreign policy advisor in Beijing, "we will have no trouble in coming to terms with the lady."

Of course, this would come at a cost to the Chinese. "If the lady comes to power, the international economic sanctions will be lifted," the advisor said. "And then we will no longer be without competition in Burma."

This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, please visit Spiegel Online or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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