A violent crackdown in military-run Burma (Myanmar) is continuing, one week after security forces broke up peaceful monk-led protests on the streets of Rangoon, sending shock waves around the world. Predawn raids on houses and temples in the former capital, which is under nighttime curfew, have netted truckloads of people suspected of joining the biggest antigovernment outpouring since 1988.
Young monks who led the marches that brought huge crowds of citizens into the streets are now fleeing the repression, and a few have now reached the Thai border town of Mae Sot. Three Buddhist monks interviewed Thursday offer a rare glimpse of the events leading up to the crackdown.
Back in Rangoon, several monasteries now appear to be abandoned, say diplomats there. At least 1,000 forcibly disrobed monks are reportedly being detained in Army and police camps and in converted school buildings. "Only the old monks are left, all the young monks have left Yangon [Rangoon]," says one of the monks who escaped.
The repression comes as UN special envoy to Burma Ibrahim Gambari prepares to brief the UN security council on Friday after four days of meetings in the isolated country. During his visit, Mr. Gambari met detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and junta leader Gen. Than Shwe. Diplomats are waiting to hear what, if any, assurances were offered by Burma on long-stalled political reforms, though analysts warn that military leaders have given no sign of compromise.
UN officials say Gambari also pressed the leadership on the fate of the unknown number of Burmese detained by security forces. A local UN worker and her family were taken overnight from their home earlier this week, though it's unclear if the worker, who hasn't been named, was targeted or caught in a neighborhood sweep. Associate Press reported Thursday the worker and family were released.
"We continue to receive information of nighttime raids on homes and monasteries, reports of missing persons, and poor conditions in detention centers," says a UN official in Rangoon. "We don't go out and verify these … but the trends we detect are alarming."
Human rights monitors say the clampdown appears to be both targeted and indiscriminate, with Army patrols searching for named activists in hiding, and sweeping overnight raids on neighborhoods considered antiregime. Soldiers have issued warnings over loudspeakers that they will detain those demonstrators caught on camera during the protests. Exiled news agencies have reported that state media and pro-government militia have supplied photos to security forces.
The whereabouts of the young monks, whose disciplined ranks had galvanized a simmering antigovernment movement in Rangoon sparked by fuel price hikes in August, is hard to determine, according to diplomats and human rights groups. Some are likely to be in custody and may have been injured during the raids. Others were ordered or voluntarily opted to return to their villages, including novices who join the monkhood during the rainy season on a temporary basis.
Those who traveled here to Thailand by land to escape the military dragnet have turned to exiled pro-democracy groups for shelter and assistance.
Escape from Burma
U Kaw Tha La's journey began Sept. 27 when 30 monks from his monastery in Rangoon joined a protest march. On his way back, the marchers came under attack from police and Army units, and he fled into a nearby apartment. Tha La – not his real name – then sought sanctuary in a nearby monastery, but was warned that it could be raided at any time. After a sleepless night, he went to an intercity bus terminal that was teeming with robed monks fleeing the crackdown, he said in an interview Thursday at a safe house here. "I was afraid that I could be arrested or even shot," he says.
After three days of travel, he reached the border.
A beating unifies monk resolve
The three middle-age monks say that their average-sized neighborhood monastery in northern Rangoon wasn't initially involved with the fuel-hike protests that began in August. But there were reports of Burmese monks being beaten in the north by the military. An apology was demanded.
On Sept. 17, a letter arrived at their monastery. It encouraged them to go to the streets in prayerful protest. A week later, as more monks joined the street procession, their abbot encouraged them to go out. A few younger monks marched. But a day later, Sept. 25, all but the most frail in the monastery joined the street protests.
Tha La says that he has been a monk for "several years," including three at this monastery. The three monks agree that there was little debate about whether to join the protest. "There was no disharmony," Tha La says.
He and another monk say that they planned to return when it is safe, and vow to continue to push for reform through peaceful methods. He says the clergy will continue to shun the regime by refusing to accept alms. "If the soldiers give us food or medicine now, we won't accept them."
The brutal treatment of the revered Buddhist clergy, who infuriated the regime by refusing to accept alms, has stunned many Burmese, who ask how ordinary soldiers could beat, tear-gas, and shoot unarmed monks.
That has fed speculation by exiled Burmese activists of dissent in ranks over the crackdown amid reports by pro-democracy news services of unit commanders refusing to fire on crowds. A man who claimed to be an Army major told reporters in Thailand this week that he had defected and was seeking asylum in Norway because he refused to participate in the killings of monks.
"The military has insulted one of the most respected institutions in the country. So there is a crisis inside the Army over why they had to shoot Buddhist monks and use this brutality," says Zaw Oo, an exiled Burmese analyst and university lecturer in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
But any revulsion in the ranks at such tactics may be diluted by years of training and indoctrination in self-enclosed military bases, as well as decades of scorched-earth campaigns against ethnic rebels along Burma's frontiers. Government soldiers are accused of committing widespread human rights abuses against civilians in disputed zones near the Thai border. Campaigners have labeled the destruction of villages in ethnic Karen and other minority areas as "Burma's Darfur."
Now battle-hardened soldiers are confronting urban dissenters whom the regime has labeled as traitors, says Thant Myint-U, a former UN official and author of "The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma." "These are counterinsurgency troops that have been [hardened by] brutal attacks on civilians," he says.