Anatomy of Brutality: A Closer Look at the Burmese Junta

By Jürgen Kremb in Burma

It is clear that the Burmese military junta is brutal. But what else do we know about them? Not much -- unless, that is, you talk to disgruntled leaders inside the country.

The residents of Pakokku have always lived on the brink of starvation. Indeed, the city has earned the dubious distinction as Burma's "rice cemetery." Otherwise, this city at the confluence of the Irawaddy and Chindwin Rivers has been a relative unknown until recently. But its anonymity is now a thing of the past.

The Burmese military junta brutally crushed the monk uprising last month. But will the country fall apart anyway?
AP

The Burmese military junta brutally crushed the monk uprising last month. But will the country fall apart anyway?

"One day perhaps Pakokku will go down in the history books as the place where the fight for democracy began," says the old monk. "That, at least, is our dream." Then he looks around carefully. "Let's talk where we won't be observed. Otherwise I'll go to prison."

Foreigners have always been a rare sight in Pakokku, and that is especially true now. This was the city where the police's brutal treatment of protesting Buddhist monks in early September triggered a wave of demonstrations that eventually swept across the entire country. Not surprisingly, the elderly monk -- influential in one of the city's Buddhist monasteries -- is unwilling to be identified in print. Being seen in the company of foreigners would pose serious problems for him.

'Because They Were Hungry'

Burma's generals are firmly in control of the country once again. The mere act of listening to a foreign radio station is enough to land a Burmese citizen in prison. Government militias are still dragging regime critics and alleged demonstrators from their homes at night. Pakokku's three largest monasteries have become military camps, with parked trucks filling the spaces between the monks' quarters. The city's residents look sick and emaciated, and the city itself is little more than a poorhouse today. The once-magnificent steps leading up to the Shweguni Temple have been destroyed. Neighboring residents have removed stones from the structure to build fire pits, where they cook pancakes made of inexpensive rice meal. Few can afford rice.

Tensions began rising in the city in mid-August, when the government raised the price of gasoline overnight. Many people could no longer travel to work because the fuel hike led to a drastic increase in bus fares. "At first the monks took to the streets merely because they were hungry," says the monk.

Pakokku is second only to Mandalay as the country's most important religious center. The novices who come to its monasteries are generally from Chin State, a mountainous region in the country's far west. The Chin people are bitterly poor, and the region is home to local rebels who have long been fighting the military government.

Cremations of the Unknown

In an effort to intimidate local residents, the government decided to make an example out of Pakokku. Police units entered the city, tied young monks in their red robes to lamp posts and beat them until they were bloody. "It was a violation of everything that is holy in our country," says the elderly monk.

What happened next -- the formation of the All-Burma Monks Alliance, the uprising in the country's commercial capital and largest city Yangon, the massacres and the arrests -- shook the world. How many victims the uprising claimed will likely never be known. The "State Peace and Development Council," as the junta calls itself, claimed that there were 10 dead and about 3,000 arrested. The only thing that is certain about these statistics is that the real number will never be known. On the same day the country's military leaders released the figures, 79 bodies of "unknowns" were cremated at the Yangon crematorium.

United Nations Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari traveled to six Asian capitals last week in an effort to convince neighboring countries to exert enough pressure on the 74-year-old junta leader, Than Shwe, to enter into talks with Aung San Suu Kyi, 62, the opposition leader who remains under house arrest. Gambari, though, was largely unsuccessful. Thailand, currently under military rule itself, is loath to get involved. China, although it voted for a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Burmese generals, has declared the resolution of the conflict Burma's "internal affair." India, the country's big democratic neighbor, remains reserved, anxious not to harm economic relations. Gambari himself was granted permission on Tuesday to see for himself what the situation is inside Burma and will be traveling there in early November.

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