Burmese Daze

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Ten Days of Turmoil

Bangkok, October 2, 2007

How quickly things change. Just over a week ago I was writing about the swelling monks’ marches sweeping the country. I had no sooner posted my blog when I heard that, incredibly, the monks had been allowed to march past the roadblocks guarding Aung San Suu Kyi’s house and that, even more amazingly, she had been allowed outside her doors for the first time in several years to go stand by her (heavily guarded) front gate and greet the monks. It was a deeply moving, stirring moment that captured the sudden swelling optimism and hope that swept the population along through the huge marches of Saturday, Sunday and Monday of last week. The two great moral authorities of Burma, Suu Kyi and the monkhood, suddenly stood united for a few magical moments. At that moment, it seemed as though it was possible to hope that the protests might have an improbably happy ending. After the Orange and Rose Revolutions, could this be the Maroon Revolution? I had happy fantasies of a huge crowd swarming over the roadblocks on University Avenue and bearing Suu Kyi off, carried shoulder-high in triumph, to Shwedagon.

On Sunday and Monday, the demonstrations reached their zenith. Perhaps 100,000 people thronged the streets, with tens of thousands of monks marching serenely along the main thoroughfares flanked by even greater numbers of ordinary citizens who flooded out of buses and taxis and off the sidewalks to join the multitudes. For the first time university and high school students, the vanguard of the 1988 uprising, appeared in force. On Monday pictures of Suu Kyi and her father, the independence hero Aung San, were carried aloft, along with the Fighting Peacock flag of the 1988 student movement. The monks’ spiritual march was acquiring a more overtly secular and political flavour. The frustrations and hopes of a generation, repressed for 19 long years, burst forth in chanting and singing and banners. And still, incredibly, the authorities did nothing.

On Tuesday, the atmosphere changed. Troops were seen moving into and around the city. Rumours swirled that Tuesday would be the day that the government would crack down. Defiantly, more marchers than ever filled the streets, showing their refusal to be cowed. People went to bed that evening wondering whether the government had lost its nerve, and whether this was the defining day for a generation.

Sadly, it was not to be. On Wednesday morning, everyone was convinced that this was the day that the government would show its iron fist. The previous night, government loudspeaker trucks had driven around at 2 am, declaring Rangoon to be under military administration and forbidding gatherings of more than 5 people. Trucks and buses, commandeered by the military, were seen waiting to take arrested demonstrators away, their number plates covered to protect their drivers’ identities should the military not win the upcoming confrontation. Troops in combat gear were seen driving around town. Warnings were given by the government that no protest would be tolerated that day.
Monks from all over the city nevertheless congregated, as had become the pattern, at Shwedagon Pagoda, the spiritual centre of the city, the Vatican or Qaaba of Burmese Buddhism, around lunchtime. Prominent dissidents such as the actor Thu Zaw and the comedian Zaganar showed up to provide lunch to the thousands of monks before they set off to the downtown Sule Pagoda. At the end of the road leading from the east gate of Shwedagon to Kandawgyi Lake, however, 20 or more armed soldiers, automatic weapons at the ready, stood waiting.

I wasn’t downtown at the time, so I had to follow the events by text message and Internet instant messaging. As monks milled about, ready to march, the police and army fired tear gas and attacked the monks, beating them savagely with nighsticks and rifle butts. A student who was at the demonstrations told me later that at least two monks were beaten to death, their skulls smashed open as they lay defenceless on the ground. Clouds of choking tear gas filled the air. Hundreds of monks and civilians were arrested, thrown into waiting trucks. The government had landed its first blow.

Amazingly, the monks weren’t put off and the crowd found a different route away from Shwedagon towards Sule. They arrived in the downtown core and made their way onto Sule Pagoda Road where they stopped and recited Buddhist prayers in a sort of sit-in. The government responded with more tear gas, baton charges and, for the first time in this series of demonstrations, gunshots. Many were warning shots, but some were not. A few monks and demonstrators fell, the latest victims of the junta’s bid to maintain total power over its people. Demonstrators ran for their lives, but then regrouped later, able even to induce riot police to part ranks and let them through. The student I talked to told me that although monks were allowed to pass, police arrested a number of civilians, including two of his friends. The police laid hands on him as well, but he was saved by the monks who grabbed hold of him and refused to let police take him away.

That evening was a tense one, with the government declaring a 6pm-6am curfew on the streets. We spent the evening exchanging messages; friends living in various parts of the city reported hearing gunshots, or went out to watch the demonstrations.

The next morning, Thursday, we awoke to hear that the government had struck in the night. Monasteries which had contributed large numbers of monks to the ranks of marchers had their gates smashed in by trucks at 2 am, their doors kicked in and the full fury of the government let loose on the monks. Hundreds of monks were beaten brutally, spattering the walls and floors with blood. Several monks died of their injuries on the spot, while most of the others were thrown into trucks and driven off to an unknown fate.

The effect of this news was electrifying, particularly when the pictures of the bloodshed made their way via blogs and cell phones and the satellite TV stations like BBC into Burmese homes. The ferocity and sacrilege of assaulting monasteries, smashing Buddha images and stealing money and valuables, was the ultimate outrage to the devout citizens of Rangoon. Despite the military menace, tens of thousands of citizens made their way onto the streets again. This time, there were almost no monks; for the first time, the demonstrations were led by civilians.

Thursday was a day of horror for those of us in Rangoon. Downtown, troops opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing an unknown number, including a Japanese journalist shot in cold blood at close range for carrying a video camera. Peaceful rallies, marked by singing and chanting and a large sit-in, were broken up with extreme violence. For hours the army chased demonstrators up and down the streets, ducking into side streets. An order was given to clear the streets within 10 minutes, sparking a panic-stricken flight by the crowd.
All this was seen and videotaped by observers high up in Traders Hotel, and it made its way within minutes out to the world media. Meanwhile, away from the city centre, scenes of equal carnage were unfolding. In South Okkalapa, to the northeast, the site of one of the raided monasteries became the scene of a huge confrontation between tens of thousands of outraged citizens and a few hundred soldiers. Rocks, catapults and a few petrol bombs were thrown at the army, but they responded with automatic weapons fire, killing an unknown number of demonstrators. At 5 pm, I was told that at least 4 people were dead, and more died after that.

A crowd of demonstrators had made their way from the downtown towards the South Okkalapa area to join this act of resistance, but they made the mistake of marching along a stretch of road between two high walls. The army cut them off in front and behind, trapping them in front of a school. Both rubber bullets and live ammunition strafed the panic-stricken crowd, chasing them into drainage ditches. Soldiers carried the bodies away. Again, an unknown number were cut down; there are still no accurate estimates of the death toll, but it may have been substantial. The next day hundreds of sandals lined the road, lost in the panicked flight from the gunfire.

Since then, it’s been all downhill. More mass arrests, more neighbourhoods sealed off for house-to-house searches, more force and threats of force. Ibrahim Gambari, the UN representative, has come for probably futile talks with the government. Rumours have swept the blogosphere that hundreds of detainees, especially monks, have been executed and their bodies either burned or dumped into the Yangon River by night. Other rumours, more hopeful, have surfaced of splits in the military. Than Shwe’s family seems to have fled the country, along with Tay Za, the multi-millionaire family financier. The military commander of Yangon has been cashiered for not using enough deadly force on crowds, and rumour has it that so have the commanders of the units deployed in Yangon and Mandalay. Both cities remain under curfew. The Internet is completely out, and has been for several days.

Who knows what will come next? We can only hope that something hopeful may emerge, but at the moment, all I can think of is the chilling forecast of the future from George Orwell’s prophetic 1984: "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever." If you believe in prayer, pray for the Burmese: they need all the help they can get.

Check out the blogs and internet news services that bravely, at great risk, brought the news from Burma to the world.