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Protesters stay put to battle junta as world waits on Burmese border

By Peter Popham, Independent Online, October 4, 2007

Mae Sot, Thailand -- At the Moei river in Thailand there is sticky sunshine, jungle and the world's media in waiting. Yet there is no flood of refugees from across the border in Burma.

From Rangoon there are disturbing reports of monks fleeing the city; of thousands more locked up in windowless improvised prisons with little to eat or drink. Nine died during the disturbances, says the military junta that calls itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) an appropriately Orwellian name for the gang of butchers that rules the country where Orwell once served as a policeman. The real figure could be as high as 200 but as yet no one knows where the bodies are.

The Rangoon bloodbath last week was not a surprise to veteran observers of the country. What was expected to follow was what occurred following the far bloodier crackdown in 1988: a flood of political refugees to the border.

Yet it hasn't happened. One week ago three monks were smuggled across the Moei river which divides the two countries, and vanished into safe houses before any journalists could get at them. On Tuesday a major in the Burmese army, sick of carrying out despicable orders, followed them over. So far that's it.

Fleeing here from Rangoon, a distance of about 190 miles, is dangerous but not particularly difficult. A former student leader who fled Burma two years ago explained to me that there is a regular traffic in gem smugglers between Rangoon and Thailand, who smooth their path by bribing police along the route. He paid a smuggler to take him along with his gems. It happens all the time.

But it's not happening now, and not because it's even more dangerous than usual but for another reason, one that suggests that this particular uprising is far from over.

And that the mood of hand-wringing despair of some Western commentators may be premature.

I met Dr Naing Aung, a leading Burmese activist in exile, at a little coffee shop in this town which is a patchwork including Burmese ethnic groups, as well as Thai Muslims, Indians and Chinese. Dr Aung was one of the thousands who escaped from Rangoon and the certainty of many years in jail after the 1988 crackdown. But today, he told me, the mood in Rangoon is dramatically different.

"The big difference between 1988 and now is that when we came out of Burma to the border area, we were preparing for the armed struggle to overthrow the regime. We came out and began training to fight alongside the ethnic armies that were fighting.

"But now the protesters inside Burma are for the non-armed struggle. They want to win it by winning people's hearts.

"It requires more courage because they are facing armed people without any weapons. But they say, anyway we can't compete against the Burmese army in armed power we can compete in terms of the support of the masses, in terms of truth and justice. They want to stay where they are to carry on the non-armed struggle and they don't want to go into exile."

In recent years, analysts have argued that non-violence against such regimes doesn't work, generalising from the failure of non-violent struggles, such as that of the Tibetans against the Chinese, to make significant headway. It worked for Gandhi because the British were soft-hearted foreigners who had to worry about elections and who in any case would have gone home some day anyway. But against pitiless regimes such as that in Burma, hands dripping with blood, it is futile.

According to Dr Aung, however, this new generation of rebels is bent on proving them wrong.

"They have been taking up Gandhian methods, what we call political defiance: demonstrations, boycotts, refusing to have religious communication with the regime; praying ..."

The world woke up to the Burmese uprising when the monks began their marches two weeks ago. But Dr Aung explains that this was the culmination of a long series of smaller demonstrations that began when activists of his generation, imprisoned after 1988, began coming out of jail in the early 1990s.

"They started small-scale movements that the regime could not do anything about: the 'White Sunday' movement, many people wearing white on Sundays; paying visits to political prisoners in jail; the 'White Expressions' movement, thousands of people writing about their sufferings under the regime, printing them, and distributing them secretly. Farmers whose land had been stolen and people who had been illegally taxed were encouraged to lodge law suits to fight these things. Activists out of jail did a lot of work educating ordinary people about their human rights. Last December they defiantly celebrated International Human Rights Day.

"The protest that launched the uprising last month also began in a small way. It was a silent walk to protest against the hike in fuel prices, first in Rangoon then in many other cities no slogans, no banners; often just small numbers of people. The monks staged a silent march of their own. That was the beginning."

In the office of an exile organisation in Mae Sot called the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, a monk who is one of its founders described his violent initiation into the life of the rebel.

U Te Za Ni Ya was a student in a Burmese technical college in 1988. When the regime shut down the colleges he went to Rangoon and took part in the uprising. The group he was with raided a police station, seized weapons and, during a day-long gun battle, killed three policemen. He was arrested with the others and given a 10-year jail sentence, serving more than than eight years. "After coming out of prison you want to clean yourself spiritually so I went into a monastery, as many ex-prisoners do, and became a monk," he explained. "In prison I mostly spent time with monks so I had become used to their customs and interested in religious matters."

Was it not strange, I asked, to see monks the men of peace and prayer taking such a central role in the new uprising?

"To play a physically violent role would be far from our beliefs," he said. "But we can have a mediating role. When Lord Buddha was alive he tried to mediate between one particular king and the people who were rebelling against him, in a peaceful way. We monks are Buddha's sons and so we try to follow in our father's footsteps."

But to get the generals to the point where mediation is a possibility seems inconceivable. Do the rebels secretly dream of a violent deus ex machina-type intervention from abroad, Baghdad-style?

Absolutely not, said Dr Aung firmly. "We need international support, but this is our cause, our struggle. The crucial element is our fight: we have to stand up. We want to be able to show the military regime, you are the only ones against us. Of course we also want co-ordinated international action. The generals think everything is fine. We need international pressure from inside to tell the truth to [Burma's military chief] Than Shwe.

If China says, you cannot kill people on the streets, you cannot run your economy that way, they will listen. We want to hit their cronies hard with sanctions to send the message. The people are not retreating now. Most of the monks' leaders are free, only two were arrested because they didn't make any speeches, they didn't identify themselves. This is the beginning of the end of military rule. It is not the final battle, but it is the first step in the final battle."

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