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Myanmar's monks keep up protests from prison

by GEOFFREY YORK, The Globe and Mail, October 3, 2007

Many refusing to touch food from captors as they symbolically maintain boycott of military regime

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Even in a makeshift prison, stripped of their crimson robes, Myanmar's monks are still defying the orders of the military regime that smashed their protests last week.

<< A monk stands in defiance of security forces in the streets of Rangoon, Sept 26, 2007

Many of the imprisoned monks are refusing to touch food from their military captors, symbolically maintaining their boycott of the Myanmar regime, according to reports emerging yesterday from unofficial sources in the isolated country.

UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari was finally permitted to meet the regime's top leader, Than Shwe, yesterday on the fourth day of his visit to the country formerly known as Burma. He also met with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi for 15 minutes.

It was his second meeting with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who has been held under house arrest for most of the past 18 years, and it raised a slender hope that the regime might be engaging in an indirect dialogue with the opposition for the first time in many years.

The pro-democracy groups in exile were skeptical. "The junta always plays these tactics," said Soe Aung, spokesman for the National Council of the Union of Burma. "I very much doubt there was any concrete answer to Gambari from the junta. Every time a UN envoy carries the international concerns to the junta, we never see any changes."

There was no public statement from Mr. Gambari, who was heading to New York yesterday to report to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

A student of Buddhism in Myanmar told the BBC that the monks were disappointed that the UN envoy chose to meet with Ms. Suu Kyi rather than with them.

"They were very hopeful about the UN envoy coming to Burma. But they were quite surprised to hear that he met Aung San Suu Kyi," he said.

"They love and respect her, but they felt that this time it is about them and that the UN envoy should be speaking to them. They felt that it's a distraction from them while they are being shot at and need protection. This was an opportunity for them to express themselves for the first time after 20 years. Their eyes are on the international community; their only hope is that the world will see their plight and help them."

Opposition to the junta continues to show itself subtly inside Myanmar, where citizens in Rangoon are shutting off the government-run nightly newscast, trying to send the subtle message to authorities that they are tired of listening to their propaganda, residents said yesterday. Most are switching off the news for the first 15 minutes of the hour-long broadcast, while some also are shutting off all the lights in their homes. It was unclear how many people participated in the protest, which spread by word of mouth.

"As there is tight security preventing us from marching on the streets, we are doing this as a symbol that we the people of Burma are being kept helplessly in the dark," one resident told the Mizzima news agency.

In Geneva yesterday, the UN human-rights council held an emergency session to consider the Myanmar crisis. "The Myanmar authorities should no longer expect that their self-imposed isolation will shield them from accountability," said Louise Arbour, the Canadian who serves as UN human-rights commissioner.

She said the military regime must be held accountable for its "shocking response" to the peaceful protests.

The regime, meanwhile, blamed foreigners for the pro-democracy protests. It pronounced itself satisfied with the outcome of the crackdown. "Normalcy has now returned to Myanmar," Foreign Minister Nyan Win told the UN General Assembly in New York.

With regular jails already bursting at the seams with political prisoners who were detained long before the latest pro-democracy protests, Myanmar has thrown the monks into makeshift detention centres in Rangoon, including a disused race track and a government technical institute. As many as 1,000 prisoners - the vast majority of whom are monks - are being held in a windowless warehouse at the technical institute, where the hunger strike is under way, according to exiles from Myanmar who keep close contact with their country.

"The guards are trying to force them to eat, which is a form of torture," said Bo Kyi, head of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a group based in Thailand. "I'm very worried about them. Some of them could die in detention. It's really heartbreaking for the people of Burma."

Mr. Aung of the National Council of the Union of Burma said the conditions at the makeshift prison are "very crowded" and the monks are in poor condition.

To push the detained monks even further into isolation from the general population, the regime is planning to transport them out of Rangoon, unconfirmed reports suggest.

"They are preparing to send all of the prisoners to faraway places, near the northern borders, hundreds of miles from Yangon," said Win Hlaing, a senior member of the pro-democracy party that won the last permitted election in 1990 but was not allowed to take office. (Yangon is the name the junta gave to Rangoon, the country's major city.)

The exiles are worried that the monks could be shipped to malaria-infested regions where they could perish without witnesses.

The human-rights group Amnesty International echoed those concerns. "It is the duty of the Myanmar government to account for all those detained by its law enforcement agents, military and other security forces," it told the United Nations Human Rights Council yesterday.

"Detainees should not be held in secret places of detention, and must be granted access to independent lawyers, medical personnel and to family members."

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