By Jürgen Kremb
It takes two days to organize the logistics of a secret interview with one of the leaders of the demonstrations in Yangon. Finally, everything is arranged and a taxi is waiting at the agreed location.
This taxi symbolizes the catastrophic state of Burma's economy, one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. Virtually the whole of the interior trim is missing, the seats are ripped, and the passenger door is in constant danger of falling off. After an hour-long circuitous journey through the streets of Yangon, the vehicle rolls into the dark courtyard of a wooden single-family house in the eastern part of this city of 5 million people.
The wiry man who awaits the arrival of the taxi is dressed in civilian clothes and has a shaved head. He speaks passable English and introduces himself as the leader of the All-Burma Monks' Alliance, the organization that led the recent demonstrations against the military junta. "Call me U Min," he says hastily. It is 8:30 p.m. in Yangon and there's not much time to talk -- the curfew begins at 10 p.m. "It's not true that the demonstrations have ended," says Min. In Sittwe, in the western state of Arakan, the resistance has not yet been broken, he says. But he knows that it won't last long.
"They must have been hundreds of deaths," says Min. "We'll never find out the exact number." The military is said to have given orders not to leave any victims on the streets and to burn all corpses immediately. But what shocks the monks' leader most of all is an incident that occurred at the beginning of the week before last.
Min was among a group of monks who were singing and praying as they walked up the steps to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the symbol of the country. "There, the military opened fire on us from above," he says. "It's tantamount to shooting at the priests in St. Peter's." A number of monks immediately fell down dead; there are no traces of those who were wounded in the incident.
Most of Min's fellow monks are on the run, headed for Thailand. But he intends to stay because he firmly believes that the uprising will flare up again. "People are hungry and they will never forgive the murders," says Min at the end of the interview. "The people are trembling with rage -- we won't wait another 19 years."
But the people are also trembling with fear. In contrast to the summer of 1988, when soldiers opened fire on crowds in the streets of Yangon and mowed down at least 3,000 demonstrators, the regime's hunters now come at night. They silently take away opponents of the regime and people who are suspected of taking part in the demonstrations.
There are also reports of a brutal crackdown in South Okkalapa Township, a slum in eastern Yangon. Clashes continued here long after troops had quelled resistance in the center of the city. When the soldiers tried to storm a monastery in Biezar Yaniar Street which was home to particularly rebellious monks, they met with resistance from local residents.
People in South Okkalapa, a quarter of day laborers and the poor, have nothing left to lose. In this part of town, the head of a household rarely earns more than 1,300 kyat a day, the equivalent of 60 euro cents. By comparison, a kilo of rice costs 2,500 kyat.
When the troops advanced on the monastery, there were suddenly hundreds of people on the street, but they could do nothing. The soldiers surrounded the complex and butchered the crowd with bayonets. Inside the monastery they went on a murderous rampage. The monks, who are sworn to a life of non-violence, offered no resistance. "The monks had to stand in a row and then the soldiers smashed their heads against a brick wall," says a local resident.
There are no independent confirmations of such reports. On Wednesday evening last week, Burmese state radio announced that foreign saboteurs were in the country disguised as journalists. German correspondents were explicitly warned. "We will hunt you down," said the radio announcer.
(From left to right) Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General Ibrahim Gambari, Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) Senior-General Than Shwe, Vice Chairman of SPDC Vice Senior-General Maung Aye, member of the Myanmar SPDC General Thura Shwe Mann and Acting Prime Minister and SPDC First Secretary Lieutenant-General Thein Sein pose for a photo in Naypyitaw, the new capital of Myanmar.
At night, the feared Swan Arr Shin militia, made up of small-time criminals who do the regime's dirty work, patrol the outlying areas of town, armed with bamboo poles, clubs and knives. In Yangon alone, the government has set up three internment camps. One of them has been built on the grounds of an old horse racing track and another is reportedly located near Yangon International Airport in Mingaladon. Roughly 800 monks have been taken to the grounds of the Yangon Technological University, where for the past few days carpenters have had to build 300 wooden cells, each measuring just three meters by three meters. Since many of the monks are still refusing to receive alms from the military in protest, they have in effect embarked on an involuntarily hunger strike.
Officially, the curfew is from 10:00 pm to 4:00 am, but in the outer districts of Yangon, soldiers block intersections every night at 6:00 pm. At nightfall, the population is placed under house arrest.
"Even such a brutal repression will not end this crisis," says one knowledgeable observer, who prefers not to give his name. The fact that he works for the government as an economic advisor lends him a certain degree of protection. He wears a checkered Burmese longyi -- a kind of traditional sarong -- and a carefully ironed white shirt. "What we've seen over the past few days was a revolt inspired by hunger," he says. In his opinion, the military leaders don't care where the country is headed.
Nonetheless, he finds it encouraging that UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari actually met twice with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi during his visit to the country. The opposition leader has spent more than 11 of the past 18 years under house arrest or in prison.
Between his two meetings with Suu Kyi, Gambari also met with the 74-year-old junta leader Than Shwe. According to the economic advisor, subtle pressure from China and unusually harsh condemnation from ASEAN -- the Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- may have had some effect on the regime. In any case, state media reported last Thursday that Than Shwe would be prepared, "under certain conditions," to meet with "the Lady," as Suu Kyi is affectionally known. However the junta said Monday that Suu Kyi will remain under house arrest under a new constitution is approved, which most analysts consider a very distant prospect.
There is not much hope left in Burma. During the uprising, speculation was rife about a possible split in the military, fuelled in part by a photo printed in the junta mouthpiece The New Light of Myanmar after the UN special envoy's visit to Yangon. It shows Gambari with the four top military leaders who are on the "State Peace and Development Council," which is the official name of the military regime in Burma. Wasn't there a slight gap between junta boss Than Shwe and the other generals? And wasn't the senior general actually holding Gambari's hand?
But immediately following his return on Thursday, Gambari had some sobering news for his boss, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. According to the special envoy's report, the mission was unsuccessful.
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