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Climate of fear hangs over Myanmar

by Sze Wah Leong, Al Jazzera, Dec 10, 2007

For many in Myanmar life is daily struggle simply to get enough food to survive

Yangon, Myanmar -- In a narrow street in central Yangon, people push their way through a frenzied crowd to get a free plate food.

Many stuff their pockets with rice and vegetables to save for later. Barefoot children throw lollipops and soft drinks into plastic bags, to be shared out later with others whose only home is the street.

It's hard to believe that just 50 years ago Myanmar was one of the richest countries in the region, supplying most of Asia with rice.

Nowadays, despite the country's abundant natural resources, it can barely feed it's own people.

Just four months ago, unannounced fuel price hikes pushed food costs up threefold, triggering street protests that were led by monks and ended with the army turning its guns on the demonstrators.

Today, to talk about food is to criticise the government. So no matter how much the people suffer, few are brave enough to open up.

I asked one woman why food was so expensive. Even with her identity hidden she wouldn't respond, such is the state of fear in Myanmar today.

Yangon's Shwedagon pagoda is one of the country's most important religious shrines and became one of the centres of the protests in September.

Now, in the streets around the pagoda, everything looks normal. Kids sell flowers or offer to wash the hair of worshippers to earn extra money for their families.

Hopes for the future

Inside the 2,000 year old monument, devotees light candles and touch their heads to the marbled ground.

Elderly monks collect alms and give out blessings, as though encouraging the faithful to keep their hopes up for the future.

Along the streets leading up to the Sule Paya Pagoda where troops fired on unarmed civilians, pavements are a riot of colours with stalls hawking goods such as tomatoes, multi-patterned longyis, cameras, gems and watches.

Everyone seems happy, everything seems calm. But of course appearances can be deceptive.

Many of the monestaries which were shut in the wake of the crackdown are still closed.

Dissident monks are banned from returning to their sanctuaries and the dreaded undercover police are everywhere, watching for any signs of agitation that could lead to more protests.

The United Nations estimates that at least 4,000 people were detained following the protests.

Up to a thousand remain in detention or have disappeared. Many activists have gone underground and even those who sympathise with them live in fear of being arrested in the middle of the night.

I found one man willing to talk, but we had to walk through the streets for an hour before he found a place he felt safe enough to talk.

Desperate

The situation in Myanmar, he said, had become desperate.

"The business is very slow so the people are suffering. We also feel depressed. Our spirits are a little down."

He told me that the generals had put forward a series of economic initiatives based on its "Roadmap to Democracy".

More encouraging though was their engagement with the opposition, the National League of Democracy, and its leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi.

But he said the way forward wouldn't be easy.

"Within this period we will have so many struggles and sometime it may be bloody".

For now the primary concern for most in Myanmar is how to stay alive.

These days a bowl of noodles costs the equivalent of 80 cents - an enormous amount for a people who, on average, live off just one dollar a day.

While spirits are low, people in Yangon say they still have hope, if not for democracy then at least for a government that does not starve them to death.



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