13 Oct 07
It’s 9.30pm and the buses in downtown Rangoon have stopped running. People scuttle home across the city’s potholed roads and broken pavements and the few taxis still operating will only make short trips. With only 30 minutes to curfew, no one takes chances with the Burmese military these days.
Carrying shotguns and assault rifles, teenagers in military and police uniforms cluster at street corners until curfew, then retreat to fenced-off government buildings as darkness settles.
When the residents of this sprawling city of five million people withdraw to their homes, only pick-up trucks carrying troops ply the downtown area, scattering the dogs that take over the empty streets until the curfew ends at 4am.
With the killing of an unknowable number of peaceful protesters and the imprisonment of thousands more during the pro-democracy demonstrations last month, many people fear reprisals by the military. At the Shwedagon pagoda, the nucleus of the protests, the military is still in force. Wearing steel helmets, flak jackets and carrying extra ammunition, the number of troops far exceeds the few old monks who potter among the golden spires of what is the spiritual centre of Burmese life.
At the pagoda’s eastern gate, from which the monks began their days of peaceful marches around Rangoon, six fire trucks – the type used to water cannon crowds, not put out blazes – are stationed. Dozens of monastic houses lining the route to the gate remain locked and empty, despite reports in Burma’s state-controlled media that most of the monks have been released from jail.
Sources said that around 1,000 monks had lived and studied at these small monasteries, but where they have gone is not a question that anyone ponders aloud. One man simply put his wrists together in the sign of locked handcuffs when asked where they are.
“We cannot speak. We cannot defend. We have no weapons. They have all the weapons,” said another 30-year-old man, who cannot be identified for his own safety.
He, like many thousands of others, joined the monks in the early part of the protests, before the killing. What most people know is that when the military and police moved to crush the demonstrations they went after the monks under the cover of darkness – kicking in doors and bundling monks, young and old, into trucks. Buddhist nuns were also taken away. The military were too powerful to be beaten by peaceful protests but some feel that the attacks and the disappearance of the Buddhist clergy will be the undoing of General Than Shwe, the Burmese junta’s leader.
“We are a Buddhist country. We believe that if you do good, you receive good. If you do bad things you receive bad things. This will be the same for the military,” said the 30-year-old.
The military announced, in the New Light of Myanmar newspaper, that monks and nuns taken in the raids were defrocked before interrogation and those found to not have participated in the demonstrations were reordained and sent back to their monasteries.
“The handling of the situation during the violent protests and measures taken by officials for purification of the Sasana [religion] amounts to serving the interest of the Sasana,” the paper added. “Officials are to make continued efforts for perpetuation, purification and propagation of the Sasana.”
Barricades remain stacked beside pavements, in the centre of wider roads and in alleys ready for use, though after the crushing of the recent protests none of those spoken to in Rangoon seem to have the stomach for more – just yet.
Many of those who took part in the protests, even as onlookers, have fled to the countryside fearing the ongoing night-time sweeps by the intelligence services who video-taped demonstrators and are now putting names to faces.
In the aftermath of the protests the military has cut the country’s internet connection to stem the flood of protest images to the outside world. Cable TV, however, remains connected and residents in Rangoon watched the brutal crackdown in their city on TV sets tuned to CNN and the BBC.
In shops and hotel lobbies, Burmese staff whisper: “Have you seen CNN? Have you seen what happened?” Many said that the world had now seen the true face of their leaders thanks to images smuggled out of the country.
They hope that the international media attention will make a difference, though none believe the generals are anywhere near allowing democracy or handing over control of the country.
The Burmese follow the “three monkeys rule,” said a 45-year-old businessman as he sipped a cup of coffee overlooking the street corner where the Japanese cameraman, Kenji Nagai, 50, was shot dead on September 27.
“We see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. That is the way to survive. But inside we know,” he said. “I heard the Japanese cameraman worked in Afghanistan and Iraq, but did not die. Here in Burma they shot him dead,” he said, dropping his voice to explain why he left the demonstrations early, he added: “I have a wife and three children. If I am killed they will have nothing.”
Thousands were killed in pro-democracy protests in Rangoon in 1988 which the businessman also witnessed and supported. Since then the military has grown richer, stronger and has invested more in maintaining power, he said.
The demonstrations had little chance of toppling the military but he believed the latest show of defiance gave the generals the jitters. A story that was repeated by several sources claimed that the wives and children of the junta had left the country for Dubai, some said Laos, in the early days of the demonstrations, while their husbands hunkered down in the country’s new jungle capital, Naypyidaw, to coordinate the military’s response.
“They transferred their money to Singapore, many millions of dollars,” claimed the businessman as he chatted calmly but wearily about the contempt felt by the people toward the military. Midway through he stopped abruptly, his face drained and he moved in his chair, twisting his body away from two men sitting silently at a nearby table.
“They are listening. They are special police,” he said, politely ending the conversation and leaving. In this city that quietly seethes with anti-government resentment, the people are terrified of the spies of the intelligence services.
Burma’s state-run TV channels and newspapers have been packed since last week with footage of big pro-government demonstrations in provincial areas. In daily, full-page notices in newspapers and frequent TV announcements the public are warned against tuning into the “traitors,” “saboteurs,” and “neo-colonialists” at the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.
The generals are “gangsters”, said one man with overseas experience, but the economic sanctions by western nations simply benefit China and Asian nations that are still content to do business with the junta, particularly in the fields of gas, oil and other natural resources, which Burma has in abundance.
“Democracy does not fit well in Burma, the generals are gangsters but at least they can run things. These democracy parties have no experience of running the country,” he added.
The military may not even want the western foreign investment that is being denied them through sanctions – with investment comes influence both cultural and economic.
“The military have everything they need. They don’t like the influence of western culture, because then they would have to change,” he added. “All this is hurting the very poor, they cannot go about their business.”
But the Burmese security forces are not a monolith and many of the rank and file in this Buddhist nation may fear the religious implications of the attacks on the monasteries and the continued detentions of monks.
Earlier this week, at Shwedagon pagoda, a light rain fell as the last few worshippers trickled up the stairways to the hilltop temple carrying offerings of flowers and incense. Small groups of men and women sat on reed mats meditating and reciting mantras at the pavilions at the top of each stairway. Among them was one young man who kneeled, not to mediate but to ask forgiveness.
At 26, this man had been a police officer for six years and had risen to become a plainclothes officer. When the night swoops on the monasteries began, he was ordered to take part. On Monday night he deposited his police uniform and weapon at his station before coming to the pagoda for one last visit before fleeing to the Thai border. It’s an act of betrayal that will mean several years’ imprisonment if he is caught.
As he rose from his knees he said: “I have had enough. I have to leave.” Then with two other young men he started out on the journey to the border and the refugee camps where tens of thousands of Burmese have fled before him.