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Blood, Robes And Tears: A Rangoon Diary

15 minute read
Andrew Marshall

You should get closer,” says the young Burmese woman in the crowd behind me. “If foreigners are there they won’t shoot.” She is terribly wrong.

It’s about 1 p.m. on Sept. 27, and I am wedged among thousands of pro-democracy protesters near the golden-domed Sule Pagoda in downtown Rangoon. Facing us are hundreds of soldiers and riot police, who look on edge as they finger their assault rifles. The protesters, mostly ordinary Burmese clad in sarongs and sandals, appear undaunted, even jubilant. Defiantly, they chant a Buddhist mantra whose melody will haunt me for days:

Let everyone be free from harm.
Let everyone be free from anger.
Let everyone be free from hardship.

The Buddhist monks first sang this mantra. For a week now, they had been marching, calling peacefully for change in a country ruled for almost half a century by a corrupt and barbaric junta. Burma’s monkhood and military are roughly the same size — both have between 300,000 and 400,000 men — but the similarities end there. With the monks preaching tolerance and peace, and the military demanding obedience at gunpoint, these protests pitted Burma’s most beloved institution against its most reviled.

“Get closer,” the young woman urges, but a hundred yards away feels close enough. Last night, soldiers like these had raided monasteries, beating and arresting hundreds of monks. Soldiers like these had also snuffed out Burma’s last great pro-democracy uprising in 1988 by killing and injuring thousands. I know they will not hesitate to shoot.

Sure enough, seconds later, they open fire. But until that moment — until the moment this jubilant crowd scatters in anger and fear — millions of Burmese had glimpsed what life was like without their hated rulers. That glimpse might yet undo a junta, which today faces unprecedented pressure from its long-suffering people, from other nations, and perhaps even from within its own military ranks. Are the protests that took place over 10 days in late September over, or merely dormant?

I am a Briton who first fell in love with Burma a decade ago, bewitched by its rich culture, breathtaking landscapes and hospitable people. Despite their isolation and the ever-present fear of arrest, I found Burmese to be worldly and eager to talk; I quickly formed lasting friendships, and Burma became the subject of my second book, The Trouser People. I returned perhaps a dozen times, witnessing changes that were usually for the worse. People grew poorer, stalked by disease and malnutrition. Inflation lurched ever upwards. Schools and hospitals crumbled with neglect. Insurgencies raged along the rugged borders. The brightest Burmese sought lives abroad. The only real constant was the junta, which had seized power in 1962 and run a promising nation into the ground.

But there were positive changes, too. The 2004 purge of military intelligence chief Khin Nyunt dealt a blow to a once fearsome spy network. Then, one year later, the regime moved to its remote new capital at Naypyidaw. Suddenly, people in Rangoon seemed to talk a little more freely. Mobile phones and the Internet arrived and, despite being costly and state-controlled, were embraced by thousands. Student activists jailed after the 1988 protests were released and regrouping as an alternative to the National League for Democracy (NLD), the beleaguered party of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent 12 of the past 18 years under house arrest.

It was members of this self-styled ’88 generation who hit the streets in August to protest the government’s fuel-price rises. The protests were quickly snuffed out, or so it seemed. Three weeks later, I arrived to witness what now seems like a dream: a first vision of the marching monks.

They pour south from the Shwedagon, the immense golden pagoda that is Burma’s most revered Buddhist monument, in an unbroken, mile-long column — barefoot, chanting, clutching pictures of Buddha, their robes drenched with the late-monsoon rains. They walk briskly — if you stick to the city’s crumbling pavements it is almost impossible to keep pace with them — but when they reach Sule Pagoda they stop awhile to pray. Soon they’re off again, coursing through the city streets in a solid stream of red and orange, like blood vessels giving life to an oxygen-starved body.

Their effect on Rangoon’s residents is electrifying. At first, only a few applaud. Others clasp their hands together in respectful prayer, or quietly weep. One man, watching the procession without apparent emotion, abruptly folds away his umbrella so that his hands are free to applaud, and the falling rain obscures his tears. I ask another onlooker, an elderly teacher, how he feels. Overcome, he presses a clenched fist to his heart and croaks, “Happy.” The monks will soon be joined by tens of thousands of Burmese, some chanting their own mantra, in English: “Democracy! Democracy!”

A Burmese reporter takes me to meet some monks at a pagoda in the Shwedagon’s shadow, a rallying point for the daily marches. It must be under government surveillance. So, surely, is the tall figure in a white shirt and dark sarong who greets me — the poet Aung Way, another ’88 stalwart, jailed three times for his political views. He presses a poem into my hand, which I nervously shove into my pocket and forget about.

Some monks chew betel-nut, which makes their mouths froth alarmingly with blood-red saliva. The oldest monk, who is 49 and from near Mandalay, is holding a Burmese translation of Francis Fukuyama’s The Great Disruption. He is articulate and resolute. “We have three demands,” he tells me. “Release Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners. Begin a process of national reconciliation. Lower the prices of daily commodities.” China and Russia must withdraw their support for the junta, he continues, while the U.N. Security Council must discourage it from using violence.

Yet violence is what they expect. “Next they will use tear gas and water cannon,” predicts another monk. “Then they will beat and arrest people. We are not afraid.” A third monk, 23 years old, comes from Natmauk, the birthplace of Aung San, the father of Suu Kyi, a man whose obstinate sense of purpose won Burma’s independence from Britain. “We mustn’t retreat,” the monk says. “If we retreat now, we fail.”

In the evening Brigadier General Thura Myint Maung, Minister of Religious Affairs, appears on state television and threatens unspecified “action” against the monks. Within hours, trucks with loudspeakers are cruising Rangoon’s dimly lit streets, announcing a curfew and threatening to arrest anyone who marches with the monks. The junta is making its move.

So it begins. Many democracy figures are arrested overnight. The poet Aung Way is in hiding. Guiltily, I pull his poem from my pocket and read it for the first time. “We want freedom,” it reads in part. “We want friendship between our army and our people.” The army isn’t interested. The New Light of Myanmar, the junta’s barely literate newspaper, blames the violence on “hot-blooded monks” who are “jealous of national development and stability.”

Still they march. The demonstrations are now so large that downtown Rangoon has a carnival atmosphere. Applause rains down from balconies overlooking the route. One monk holds aloft an upturned alms bowl, symbolizing his refusal to accept offerings from military families, a potent gesture in a devoutly Buddhist country. Students join the march, waving red flags bearing a fighting peacock — once an anticolonial emblem, but since 1962 an anti-junta one. At the rear of the column, the chants shift up a few octaves — it’s a group of shaven-headed Buddhist nuns in their bubble-gum-pink robes.

The eastern gate of the Shwedagon is where thousands of monks usually exit to start their march into downtown Rangoon. But today the gate is locked and guarded by soldiers and riot police. They are confronted by hundreds of angry monks and students. It is a little after noon, and the battle for Shwedagon is about to begin.

There are explosions — smoke bombs, meant to shock and disorient — and the riot police charge, striking the protesters with canes. The monks and students fight back, and soon there is the unmistakable crackle of live ammunition — the soldiers are shooting above our heads. The monks dress their wounds and begin their march downtown. Trucks full of soldiers pursue them, watched from the pavement by eerily silent crowds. Near Sule Pagoda, trucks are jeered and pelted with rocks, and the soldiers again open fire over the protesters’ heads. But as dusk approaches, the crowds disperse. The shops have been shuttered all afternoon, and the pavement teashops for which Rangoon is famous vanish. Nobody wants to be out on the streets after dark.

During last night’s curfew, troops surge into monasteries across the city, beating and arresting monks. At Ngwe Kyar Yan, a monastery famed for its leadership role in the 1988 uprising, the floors are puddled with blood and the thin dormitory walls perforated with what Burmese call “rubber bullets.” They are actually ball-bearings with a thin rubber coating, shot from a 40-mm cartridge. A direct hit at close range can take out eyes, crack skulls, stop hearts.

The raids enrage the people. The lives of Burmese Buddhists are intertwined with the lives of the monks. Monks preside over marriages, chant over the dead; they shelter orphans, care for the sick; and they rely upon the people for food, medicine, clothes and shelter. “A devout Buddhist will not even step on the shadow of a monk,” says a Rangoon resident. “When a monk approaches, we move aside to let him pass.” And so, with soldiers and police still inside Ngwe Kyar Yan, hundreds of local people surround it. “We had no weapons and knew we couldn’t compete with the military,” a neighbor tells me. “Everyone just wanted to protect the monks.” Eventually, with night approaching, the security forces fight their way out with live rounds, killing two people.

“You should get closer.” And so I find myself in a crowd near the Sule Pagoda, facing soldiers and riot police. Only a handful of monks have escaped the junta’s dragnet to join this protest. When more trucks pull up at the intersection, and the troops inside noisily cock their rifles, the crowd tenses as one. Seconds later, there are explosions — more smoke bombs — and we are running for our lives.

We run along the pavements, keeping low, chased by the sound of gunfire and more explosions. The nearest escape route is 33rd Street, narrow like so many in the downtown area, and it is a seething bottleneck of people — sitting ducks — so I run on and dart up 34th Street. Are they firing over our heads? Not all the time. Not far from where I had been standing lies the body of Japanese cameraman Kenji Nagai, shot dead by a soldier at point-blank range.

People say the troops used tear gas. They didn’t, because I never feel its sting in my eyes. But there are tears, nonetheless. I meet an old man, a retired engineer, choked with emotion. I asked him if he had joined the protests. “No,” he replies. “I am too old now to run from bullets.” At that moment, more military trucks race past; one soldier trains his rifle on the crowds, and scowls. “Quick, we must go,” says the old man. “They are going to start shooting us.”

Riot police are marching north up Sule Pagoda Road, banging their truncheons against their shields. An even more menacing sight is behind: hundreds of troops, marching in formation, sealing off downtown Rangoon. Between the riot police and the troops are trucks with loudspeakers making announcements to clear the streets. For more than a week — for most of their lifetimes — Burmese have called peacefully for dialogue. This is the closest the junta gets to it: screaming at its people through loudspeakers from a truck surrounded by men with guns.

I can still hear gunfire at 5 p.m. — continuous, loud, high caliber, some of it very close, most of it caroming through the streets from the east. I phone a Burmese friend who lives in the area. He is holed up in his house with his wife and three children. “What’s happening?” I ask. He replies: “They are hunting us.”

The New Light of Myanmar gives its version of yesterday’s events. “Groups of demonstrators in Yangon mobbed the security forces, throwing stones and sticks at them, using catapults and swords,” it reads. “The security forces had to fire warning shots.” The official toll is 10 dead, including Nagai. But everyone believes the real death toll is much higher. A U.N. official tells me 40 were killed and 3,000 arrested, including 1,000 monks. Another diplomat hazards “hundreds” of deaths.

The crackdown — the killings and beatings, the thousands of arrests — seems to have worked. The protests today are small and sporadic; one in the downtown area is defused by troops firing more “rubber bullets” down Anawratha Street. There are no more marches: their rallying points, the Shwedagon and Sule pagodas, are locked and guarded. A hundred or so people are jeering at soldiers on Pansodan Street. I watch the soldiers strike a youth over the head, before pushing him into a truck. “A schoolboy,” remarks another onlooker angrily.

The 2007 democracy uprising feels over. Even the monsoon rains — such a feature of these once joyous protests, with the monks marching shin-deep through flooded streets — have petered out. The sun returns and a cheerless rainbow arcs across the skyline. “Peace and stability restored, traveling and marketing back to normal in Yangon,” trumpets the New Light of Myanmar.

But the junta’s victory could prove Pyrrhic. Buddhism matters in Burma. The regime has spent years cultivating its image as the religion’s protector. That image is now shattered. The generals’ assault on a revered institution might yet cause cracks in the army’s ranks. “Soldiers are humans,” says a Burmese analyst in Rangoon with close ties to the military. “They have families. They have monks among their relatives.” And, like Burmese everywhere, they are listening to horror stories. One teenager was stripped, beaten and interrogated by troops in a windowless building, where the floor doubled as a latrine. “Some monks told the soldiers they would go to hell one day,” he told AFP. “The soldiers cried, because they knew this was true.”

The prospect of eternal damnation is not the army’s only problem. It is crippled by low recruitment and high desertion rates. “It’s under strength,” says the Burmese military analyst. “Most regiments have fewer than 200 men. Nobody wants to join the army anymore.” I saw many troops in Rangoon ill-equipped with rusting rifles. The soldier who killed Nagai was wearing flip-flops.

The economic misery that sparked the protests, moreover, remains unaddressed. “People have been successfully intimidated into keeping their heads down — maybe,” says Shari Villarosa, chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Rangoon. “But it’s still a struggle for them to survive. So there could be another eruption. I wouldn’t be surprised.”

If that happens, what can the world do? There is already intense international pressure, although its impact on this xenophobic regime is questionable. Over four days in Burma, U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari met both Suu Kyi (twice) and junta chief Than Shwe, but his efforts look unlikely to kick-start a dialogue between the two. Similarly, China’s influence over Burma — and its willingness to use it — is probably exaggerated. A Western diplomat in Rangoon says Beijing would like to see Burma make a “managed transition” — not to democracy, but to “something with a more stable base of popular support.” But China’s U.N. ambassador, Wang Guangya, recently characterized Burma’s troubles as “basically internal.”

For millions of people worldwide — from college students to America’s First Lady — Burma is more than a country. It is a heartfelt cause. So far, however, it is a failed one, mired in a well-intentioned but self-defeating obsession with sanctions that barely dent the finances of the generals. Meanwhile, Burma has a grave and worsening humanitarian crisis: half of all Asia’s malaria deaths occur here; a third of children under 5 years old are malnourished; most of its people live on less than a dollar a day. Yet Burma receives less humanitarian aid than almost every other poor country.

The U.S. government is calling for “meaningful dialogue” with all the democratic groups in Burma. So are the usually quiescent members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Will any of this make a difference? “In 1988, Burma wasn’t part of ASEAN, it wasn’t in the international spotlight, and the effects of globalization weren’t so obvious,” says the military analyst. “Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I feel this time the generals have to address the situation in some way.”

Burma is often described as an isolated country. Yet it’s not the people who are isolated — witness, for example, how skillfully they used the Internet to globalize their protests — but the generals. The world’s challenge is finding ways to break that isolation and convince Burma’s rulers to listen to its people. Before leaving Rangoon I met a former political prisoner who was delighted to see so many young students in the recent protests. “Some were carrying fighting peacock flags, just like in ’88,” he said. “The message has clearly got through to the next generation.” The junta’s troubles aren’t finished yet. Nor are Burma’s irrepressible democrats.

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