Burma's Generals Strike Back

  • Share
  • Read Later

Monks and civilians in Rangoon take cover as Myanmar troops use batons and tear gas.

With foreign journalists locked out of the country by Burma's military government, this dispatch was written by TIME staff based on eyewitness reports.

[NOTE: The junta that runs the country imposed a systematic name change several years ago, decreeing that Burma was to be called Myanmar and the capital Rangoon was to be Yangon. The opposition has never accepted these changes; neither has the U.S. government. TIME continues to use Burma and Rangoon.]

"You should get closer," the Burmese woman, a medical student, told two foreigners ahead of her in the crowd. "If you are there they won't shoot." She was terribly wrong.

A group of protesters, thousands strong, massed on the corner of Anawratha and Sule Pagoda Roads. Facing them were dozens of soldiers and riot police. It was just after 1 p.m.

There were only a handful of monks in the crowd. On any other recent day, thousand of their brethren would be streaming from the Shwedagon Pagoda some 2 miles to the north, on their march into downtown Rangoon. But this morning the Shwedagon was closed and its approach roads guarded by soldiers and riot police. And last night, according to reports, many monasteries had been raided and hundreds of monks arrested.

The protesters were peaceful and buoyant. They chanted religious sutras, meant to express the Buddhist notion of metta, or loving kindness. These have been chanted at every rally, every march, and even those who do not speak Burmese will know their melodies by now. The protesters sing,

Let everyone be free from danger
Let everyone be free from anger
Let everyone be free from hardship

"You should get closer," the student had said. But everyone was close enough, perhaps a hundred yards from the barricades. The courage of the protesters was inspiring but the news had been grim. That morning a Burmese source said that 30 bodies had been dumped at Rangoon General Hospital the night before. The report is unconfirmed but, having seen the Burmese junta and its troops in action, Western observers do not find it difficult to believe.

Emotions passed through the dense crowds as if passing through a single body. Suddenly, over hundreds of heads, more trucks pulled up at the intersection, filled with soldiers. The protesters close by must have seen something — perhaps the expression of men who would not hesitate to open fire, perhaps already preparing to shoot.

There was no warning from the soldiers, just from the crowd. It tensed as one.

There was one, perhaps two explosions — smoke bombs, meant to shock and disorient — and then gunfire, but by then everyone was scattering and running. Seconds later, more gunfire. "Were they firing over our heads? Impossible to tell," one foreigner told TIME. But at a spot barely 10 meters from where everyone had been standing, lay the body of a foreigner on the road.

"I still don't know his name," the same foreigner told TIME, "I had seen him moments before, photographing the crowd and the soldiers, absorbed and — like Burma's democrats — utterly fearless. I still don't know if he is dead, but it seems almost certain he was shot in the back as we all ran." Later a witness at a nearby tall building saw him lying on the ground. "I saw him lift one of arms up for help, but the soldiers just ran past him," she said. "Then he stopped moving." He was a big man: 6 soldiers lugged him away "like a sack of hammers," another witness said.

The rest of the crowd dispersed. "We ran along the pavements, keeping low, desperately seeking shelter, chased by gunfire and explosions," said one breathless participant. "The nearest side street was 33rd Street, narrow like so many in the downtown area, and it was a seething bottleneck of people: sitting ducks. So we ran on and ran north up 34th Street, and were still running by the time we reached the end of it."

"People said the soldiers had used tear gas," another person who was at the gathering said. "I know for a fact they didn't, because we never felt its sting in our eyes."

But there were tears in people's eyes nevertheless. An old man, a retired engineer, choked with emotion. When asked if he had joined the protests, he replied, "No, I am too old now to run from bullets." As he spoke, more trucks of soldiers went past; one leaned from the back, trained his rifle on the crowds and scowled. "Quick, we must go," said the old man. "They are going to start shooting us." And he vanished into the crowds.

Another truck pulled up, full of bricks. Three men in the back began throwing the bricks on the road — ammunition for the protesters. But riot police were already trudging up Sule Pagoda Road, scores of them, banging their truncheons against their shields to menace. An even more menacing sight was behind: hundreds of troops, marching in formation, sealing off downtown Rangoon. Not one protester threw a brick at the soldiers. The truck roared off again.

Still, the people didn't entirely disperse. Between the riot police and the troops were trucks with loudspeakers making announcements to clear the streets. For more than a week — for most of their lifetimes — Burmese have called peacefully for dialogue. This was the closest the junta got to it: screaming at them through loudspeakers from a truck surrounded by men with guns.

The rest of the monks — the great columns the world had been marveling over for a week now — never came.

Hundreds, possibly thousands of troops now rule the streets of downtown Rangoon. All afternoon there has been gunfire to the east, some of it sustained, and each time it is over a great cheer goes up. Miraculously, despite the bloodshed, people are still protesting. And they are still chanting their defiant mantra — the tune must be stuck in everyone's head, protesters and soldiers alike:

Let everyone be free from danger
Let everyone be free from anger
Let everyone be free from hardship

There are reports of the dead arriving at hospitals. Blood on the floors of raided monasteries. Soldiers digging a mass grave in a football pitch near the Shwedagon. And army trucks with heavy Bren machine guns cruising the streets, looking for prey.

It is 5 p.m., Rangoon time, and there is still gunfire heard — continuous gunfire, loud, high-caliber, some of it very close, some of it caroming through the streets to the east. Reached by phone, a Burmese man who lives in the area and is holed up in his house, is asked what is happening. His heartbreaking reply: "They are hunting us."