Oct 22, 2007

Burma: After the Saffron Protests, Silence Prevails in Myanmar

After the military crack down on protesters, people continue to suffer in silence, appealing for continuous attention to the country’s suffering under the junta.

After the military crack down on opposition protesters, Burmese people continue to suffer in silence, appealing for continuous attention to the country’s suffering under the junta.

Below is an article published by Choe Sang- Hun for International Herald Tribune,

Worshipers have begun returning to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the towering gold-coated landmark that had been cordoned off with soldiers and barbed wire only days before.

But at its four entrances, pictures of what appeared to be detainees, their faces harried or bruised from beatings, were posted as a warning. Soldiers in green uniforms lurked in the shade with their rifles. The surrounding area looked deserted, with the monks having fled and many shop workers, witnesses to the bloody crackdown, hauled away for questioning or told to relocate.

An ominous calm has settled here, less than a month after the military junta crushed an uprising for democracy led by the country's revered monks.

People have quietly returned to the squalor and inflation that brought them to the streets in protest. There are even suggestions of peace: young couples embracing under trees around scenic Kandawgyi Lake, and music from a restaurant drifting across the placid water.

But beneath the surface, anger, uncertainty, hopelessness and, above all, fear of the junta prevail.

"It's not peace you see here, it's silence; it's a forced silence," said a 46-year-old writer who joined the protests in Yangon last month and was now on the run, carrying with him a worn copy of his favorite book, George Orwell's "1984."

"We are the military's slaves," he said. "We want democracy. We want to wait no longer. But we are afraid of their guns." 

After the government shut down Internet access and denied visas for outside journalists, keeping much of the world at bay, terror continued to rage through Yangon, the main city, for days, according to witnesses and dissidents here. Soldiers raided homes and monasteries to arrest demonstrators, witnesses said, using pictures taken by government informers during the protests to identify them.

"Keep your pen and piece of paper in your pocket; there are spies everywhere," said a 62-year-old retired man in Chaukktatgyi Pagoda in Yangon. "Please don't tell anyone my name. Big trouble for me."

On the campus of the defunct Government Technology Institute, one of the several detention centers believed to hold people arrested during the nighttime raids, soldiers tore off monks' saffron robes, beat them and made them "jump like frogs," said a 60-year-old monk.

Even now, weeks after the initial crackdown, "neighbors are looking for their family members missing," said a 33-year-old businesswoman. She added: "We have never seen anything like this in our history. Even the British colonial rule, they stopped chasing people when they ran into a monastery."

By perpetrating what most Burmese felt was unthinkable - the beating and killing of monks - the ruling generals proved that they would stop at nothing to keep their grip on power. People were again cowed into subjugation. Now dissidents worry that the world, after its initial uproar, will again leave the Burmese people to cope with the junta on their own. 

"We want to explode our feelings, but if we do, who will help us?" said a 58-year-old businessman who, like many, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. "The UN? The U.S.? China? They all said they would help us. But all they did was blah, blah, blah." 

Some residents specifically found fault with the recent report on Myanmar by Ibrahim Gambari, the United Nations special envoy, who cited "continuing and disturbing reports" of abuses, including "beatings, arbitrary arrests and disappearances." Gambari also noted unconfirmed reports that the number of casualties was "much higher" than confirmed by the government, which said 10 people died in the crackdown.

"Does the UN Security Council really think the regime here will care about its statement?" asked a 46-year-old dissident journalist. 

Like diplomats here, many Burmese continue to quietly question the government's official death toll, but they have little more than rumor to go on.

After the protests, the government banned gatherings of more than five people. But each day, across the nation, it organized rallies attended by thousands of people holding signs that condemned "external interference" and accused the BBC, the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia of "airing a skyful of lies."

The junta also sought to discredit the monks. The New Light of Myanmar, a government-run daily newspaper, reported that during "purification" searches at 18 monasteries, the authorities had found, among other things, pornographic videos, "one Nazi headband and two American headbands." At the same time, government-run media carried pictures of generals kneeling and bowing before senior monks with cash and food donations, an apparent effort to suggest that they had received the monks' blessing.

"They come with fire in one hand and water in the other," said the 60-year-old monk. "These days, I cannot even leave my monastery without their permission."

The country's economic woes, which spurred the protests, have not abated. In Yangon, taxi drivers complained that they were allowed to buy only two gallons, or 7.5 liters, of gas a day, at a cost of more than twice what a typical factory worker earns in a day. The price of gas has nearly doubled in the past couple of months.

Beyond that, with few imports of foreign cars allowed, battered Japanese cars that are 10 or 20 years old can sell for $15,000 to $50,000, and the prices are rising.

Not even the most basic aspects of life have been spared. In 1988 a bowl of low-grade rice, enough to feed a family of four for a day, cost 16 kyats, about $2.50 in today's currency. It now costs 800 kyats, or $125. A 30-minute bus ride cost 100 kyats a couple of months ago, but the fare now is twice that.

"It's poor people who really suffer," said a senior business journalist. "Even if their wages rise, they cannot catch up with this inflation."

For some, the privation has brought resignation. Tin Htway, a 45-year-old farmer outside Mandalay, tends two water buffaloes and grows rice on two hectares, or five acres, of rented land with the help of his wife and a daughter who dropped out of school after sixth grade. Their hut has no electricity.

"I have no hope for my children," he said. "They will become farmers like me."

Discontent, building for years, came to the surface in August [2007], when small groups of people began peaceful marches protesting high prices and demanding more electricity. They were led by recently freed leaders of the 1988 student uprisings that ended in the death of an estimated 4,000.

When monks, the most revered class in Burmese society, marched in September [2007], poor people joined them. The junta responded by bringing in soldiers from the border areas.

Since the crackdown, up to 90 percent of bookings by tourists have been canceled, according to travel agencies and airlines, further damaging the economy. Now garment factory owners, who hire hundreds of thousands of workers, are bracing for a new wave of economic sanctions.

"Sanctions only hurt people like us and the workers; the government here doesn't care," said a factory owner. "No orders are coming from Europe because they don't trust this government. I am thinking of how to close my factory."

But for all the resentment, resisting the government is difficult, and not solely because of the crackdown. After the 1988 protests, the junta broke up the universities into smaller campuses, making it harder for students to organize. At $40 a month, satellite television is a dream for most Burmese families, deepening their isolation from the outside world. And the country's iconic pro-democracy leader, the Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, remains under house arrest.

"We feel leaderless," said a 46-year-old former student leader. "It will be very difficult to restart protests again. Maybe small sporadic protests are possible, but not large demonstrations soon."