Ausgabe 40/2007

Cracking Down on the Saffron Revolution Junta Takes Back Control in Burma

There are no signs of protests in Yangon Monday as thousands of soldiers patrol the Burmese capital. Has the junta succeeded in quelling the Saffron Revolution?

By , Jürgen Kremb and

A pro-democracy activist throws a rock at suspected undercover police who drove past a demonstration in Yangon September 29, 2007.

A pro-democracy activist throws a rock at suspected undercover police who drove past a demonstration in Yangon September 29, 2007.

It is Friday afternoon in Yangon, the former Burmese capital, and the city of 5 million broods silently under heavy rain clouds. The last clashes between demonstrators and soldiers happened in the morning. In Okkalapa, a slum neighborhood on the city's eastern outskirts, citizens blocked the path of troops as they attempted to storm yet another Buddhist monastery.

The ruling junta's security forces are attempting to seal off as many monasteries and temples as possible with barricades and barbed wire to prevent the monks from sparking further demonstrations. The strategy has already succeeded around Burma's national symbol, the Shwedagon, a giant golden pagoda in downtown Yangon. It shimmers in the soft dawn rays of the tropical sun, silent and completely devoid of people. In the areas surrounding the Shwedagon, where the pagoda rises on a hill surrounded by a tangle of markets and monasteries, barricades block the access roads to Burma's holiest site. Elite government troops are now positioned behind those barricades.

Curious passers-by find themselves facing the soldiers' Kalashnikov automatic rifles. "Just keep going, for heaven's sake, and don't look them in the eye," one local resident urges. "They shoot without warning." The soldiers have their steel helmets pulled down deep over their faces, and are all wearing orange-red scarves tied around their shirt collars.

Convoys of four or five trucks at a time constantly patrol the temple district. Young recruits sit on the truck beds, pointing their rifles at people on the streets whenever they feel threatened.

The situation is similar at the Sule Pagoda about two kilometers away, in Yangon's decaying business district, where heavy iron gates now block the doors to the temple complex's prayer and congregation rooms.

Soldiers from the government's elite 77th Brigade -- its toughest fighters -- are positioned under the trees lining some of the city's boulevards. A tense calm lasts until 3 p.m., but then the students arrive. Some are wearing the longyi, the traditional sarong worn by men in Burma, and simple rubber sandals, while others wear frayed jeans and sneakers. Buddhist monks, in their red and saffron-yellow robes -- who have hitherto dominated the images of the resistance against the military government -- are nowhere to be seen.

Yangon, the country's former capital, still reveals the architectural vestiges of the British Empire in neighborhoods like the one surrounding the Sule Pagoda. Five-story apartment buildings are built of red brick, and yet the plaster is crumbling from their facades, the asphalt on the streets is in need of repair, and heaps of garbage are piled up in the side streets. The shops sell video recorders, television sets and cheap knick-knacks, all made in China. The local residents, who are comparatively well-off, stand on their balconies applauding the students.

The students have prepared their strategies well. They appear in groups of 200 demonstrators at a time, advancing toward Anawrahta Street, a bustling commercial strip, where they occupy several intersections at the same time. Then they confront the security forces in their defensive positions around the Sule Pagoda.

A student leader calls out: "Give us freedom, we want democracy." Residents shout: "Soldiers don't shoot at the people." But the soldiers shoot nonetheless.

The first shots whip through the humid afternoon air around 4 p.m. and the students quickly scatter. They run into the next street, which is named after Aung San, one of Burma's national heroes and the father of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Soon they block the next intersection on Aung San Street. A few demonstrators redirect traffic, keeping the street clear to provide the crowd with an escape route from the soldiers' bullets. The leaders chant, once again: "Give us democracy!" The crowd responds with the same chorus as before: "Soldiers don't shoot at the people!" And the soldiers shoot again.

The cycle continues until nightfall. "Now we will come back every day," says one of the leaders, "unless they shoot us all."

These eyewitness accounts from Yangon describe the most recent chapter in a struggle that began as a clash between two powers that couldn't be more asymmetrical: thousands of monks in their colorful robes, walking barefoot or in rubber sandals, armed with the rice bowls they use to beg for alms, facing off against soldiers armed with automatic weapons and tear gas, and police officers wielding clubs and riot shields.

It is a struggle for power in a country full of pagodas and rich in natural resources, one that has been ruled by a succession of military regimes for the last 45 years. The generals have shown few scruples in using deadly force against their own people, a population that has somehow managed to intimidate them at the same time. Two years ago, on an astrologically auspicious date, the ruling junta moved the country's capital to Naypyidaw, a remote location in the jungle 320 kilometers (189 miles) north of Yangon, where they believed themselves safe against uprisings.

Burma is of geopolitical importance for both India and China.

Burma is of geopolitical importance for both India and China.

But now the generals no longer trust even their own regular soldiers. Instead, they are bringing in elite troops who were stationed on the country's borders to subdue the rebellious monks with beatings and bloodshed. Since these special forces arrived in Yangon, the direct threat to the regime appears to be over, at least temporarily. After surrounding key monasteries in Yangon and the central Burmese city of Mandalay on Thursday, the government declared the areas off limits the next day. Hundreds of monks had already been arrested by then. Eyewitnesses report seeing the soldiers beat some of the monks and drag them from their temples, leaving behind pools of blood in the monks' ransacked quarters. All remaining monks were placed under house arrest.

"We will fight until we have achieved democracy," representatives of the All Burma Monks Alliance, an organization established in September, announced. Despite their initial defeat, the Buddhist monks, who represent the country's highest moral authority, remain resolute. For 10 days the monks were the face of the protests, which began in response to sudden increases in fuel prices and then turned into a widespread call for democracy in a country ruled by generals. They gave birth to what has come to be known as the "Saffron Revolution."

By Monday, however, there were no signs of further protests in Yangon. Thousands of heavily armed soldiers patrolled the streets, stopping young men on foot and in cars, searching for cameras which could be used to get photographs and footage to the international media. Barbed wire barricades blocked off Shwedagon Pagoda, with soldiers stationed at the four entrances.

Witnesses in Mandalay told the Associated Press that security forces had arrested dozens of students who had staged a street protest on Sunday. The Norway-based opposition news organization the Democratic Voice of Burma estimated that 138 had been killed in the violence and around 6,000 detained.


© DER SPIEGEL 40/2007
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