Burmese Junta Silences the Monks

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Patrick Durand / Abaca

Demonstrators took the streets again in Rangoon, Burma.

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.]

The crackdown, with its killings, beatings, and hundreds of arrests, seems to have worked. The protests in Rangoon on Friday were small and sporadic; one in the downtown area was defused by troops firing rubber pellets down Anawratha Street. There are no more marches: The monks' sacred rallying points, the Shwedagon and Sule pagodas, are locked and guarded. Rumors that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been carted off to the notorious Insein jail now seem untrue. The road to her crumbling lakeside house is blocked by barbed-wire barricades, riot police and — peering over an wall of sandbags — a soldier with a heavy machine gun.

"That's what the Burmese government wanted the message to be: 'We don't want you marching, go home,'" Shari Villarosa, charge d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon and the highest-ranking American diplomat in the country, told TIME. "That's what has kept people in line all these years: fear and intimidation. I'm amazed [the protesters] have been as brave as the have."

Earlier today there were reports that soldiers trying to raid a monastery found the monks surrounded by local people; the soldiers eventually backed off. But this was a rare triumph. At about 3 p.m., a hundred or so people stood on Pansodan Street, jeering at soldiers at an intersection to the south. Some soldiers were leaning on their rifles, looking bored. Others were savagely beating people they had arrested. A thwack rung out as young man, his hands clasped behind his neck, was struck over the head with a cane. "A schoolboy," remarked another onlooker angrily, as the soldiers pushed the youth into a truck.

A truck loaded with a loudspeaker went around announcing that gatherings of more than five people were illegal. An onlooker, a student, has traveled in from her home in the suburbs to see the soldiers for herself. They upset her. "We can't know what they will do to the people next," she said. "The situation is changing from minute to minute."

The student was also upset about something else. When told by a foreigner of the world's enormous interest in Burma's plight, she replied sharply, "Interest is not enough." Without more help from the international community, she said, "we can't win. Our hands are empty."

She had no time to elaborate. A puff of smoke appeared at the end of 35th Street: the troops were shooting 40mm rubber pellets with ball-bearing centers. The student ran along with everyone else.

The military government, meanwhile, has been providing its version of events. On Thursday, even as its troops were spilling blood in Rangoon, the junta briefed the diplomatic community in Naypyidaw, its new capital some 200 miles to the north. Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, together with the U.S. government, were to blame for instigating the unrest, said Maung Myint, one of Burma's deputy foreign ministers.

The New Light of Myanmar, the junta's newspaper, explained the bloodshed this way: "Groups of demonstrators in Yangon mobbed the security forces, throwing stones and sticks at them, using catapults and swords, and they also tried to grab the arms of the security forces. The security forces had to fire warning shots, as the protesters turned a blind [eye] to their repeated requests. In the clashes 31 security forces were wounded [and] nine unidentified male protesters killed and 10 men and one woman wounded."

The 2007 democracy uprising feels over. Even the monsoon rains — initially such a feature of these once-joyous protests, with monks marching shin-deep through flooded streets — have petered out. On Friday afternoon, the sun returned and a cheerless rainbow arced across the skyline. But what kind of peace have the junta won, and how long will it last? "Force does not address the underlying source of grievance," says U.S. diplomat Villarosa. "People have been successfully intimidated into keeping their heads down — maybe. But it's still a struggle to survive — to feed their families, to educate their families, to get health care. So there could be another eruption. I wouldn't be surprised."

As darkness fell on Rangoon, and the streets empty, new rumors began to spread: in some parts of the city, it is said, soldiers refused orders to attack protesters and even joined them. These reports are impossible to confirm for now. They remain only rumors. But right now rumors seem the only hope the Burmese have.