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Eyewitness report: 'We don't want to shoot anyone'

The Guardian, October 2, 2007

Rangoon, Burma -- It was one of the little noticed protests, away from the main confrontations in the heart of Rangoon. But it tells much about the depth of anger at what the generals' regime is doing in Burma, and the ambivalence of some of those who are being asked to do it.

The army lorries first rolled into North Okkalapa township in the north of Rangoon on Friday. The soldiers and riot policemen with shields made themselves visible, shuttling back and forth from the nearby military camp, raising fears in the township for the monks in the six small monasteries around Bagan street.

There was good reason to be fearful. In the previous two days the military went into neighbouring South Okkalapa township, raiding monasteries, firing tear gas, rounding up hundreds of monks. The monastery's walkways were splattered with blood from beatings.

In North Okkalapa, by the time the 100 or so monks had finished their evening prayers, a crowd of civilians had gathered to beg them not to sleep in the monasteries. Many offered their own homes.

About 40 of the monks decided to slip away from the township, and the rest agreed to disperse to people's houses where they were secreted from the soldiers. Hundreds of civilians broke the curfew to protect the monasteries.

In the crowd was a man in his mid-thirties who was a student during the 1988 pro-democracy protests in which the army killed about 3,000 people. His father spent five years in prison for joining those protests.

"About 1,000 people stood in front of the monasteries to keep a vigil to support their monks," he said. "Old and young men and women stayed until close to midnight."

The vigil was repeated on Saturday night. But on Sunday, scores of the monks returned to sleep in their monasteries for fear of endangering the families they were staying with. At 11.20pm, the military shut off the power to North Okkalapa. Ten minutes later, lorries packed with soldiers and police swept into the township. They stopped in front of the civilians protecting the monasteries, the beams of their headlights concentrated on the crowd.

"The orders were delivered by one military commander in a loud speaker," said the young man. "The message was unusually soft-spoken: Please, we ask everyone to go back to their homes, do not come close to us. We don't want to shoot anyone. Please don't make us do it."

No one moved. A soldier let off three shots into the air. The women and most of the men left.

A few hundred men pelted the shields of the policemen in their trucks as they rolled down the road and entered the monasteries' gates. But within 20 minutes about 50 monks were rounded up and driven off.

The crowds returned on Monday to find the monasteries locked. The supporters of the ruling State Peace and Development Council were to be seen in the tea shops and restaurants, making their presence known.

No one in the township knows where the monks have been taken but many suspect they have been hauled off to the Insein government technical institute, which has become a makeshift prison for all kinds of dissenters. But there were reports today that the institute was emptied overnight and the fate of the detainees was unknown. No one knows for sure how many monks have been arrested across Burma but thousands are unaccounted for.

The man who joined the crowds outside the monasteries was in tears as he told his story, his eyes red and tired. "We did not manage to protect our monks. We can only see but cannot act," he said.

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