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Secret cremations hide Burma killings

The Sunday Times, October 7, 2007

Rangoon, Burma -- THE Burmese army has burnt an undetermined number of bodies at a crematorium sealed off by armed guards northeast of Rangoon over the past seven days, ensuring that the exact death toll in the recent pro-democracy protests will never be known.

<< Burmese protesters running for cover from soldiers' attacks

The secret cremations have been reported by local people who have seen olive green trucks covered with tarpaulins rumbling through the area at night and watched smoke rising continuously from the furnace chimneys.

They say they have watched soldiers in steel helmets blocking off roads to the municipal crematorium and threatening people who poke their heads out of windows overlooking the roads after the 10pm curfew.

Their accounts have been volunteered to international officials and aid workers in Rangoon, Burma’s main city. The consensus in the foreign community is that the consistency of the stories makes them credible.

“There has been no attempt to identify the dead, to return the bodies to their families or to give them even the minimum Buddhist religious rites,” said a foreign official who has collated information on the toll of dead and injured from a wide variety of sources.

Horrifying rumours are sweeping the city that some of those cremated were severely injured people thrust into the ovens alive, but these have been treated with extreme caution by independent observers and have not been verified.

However, it is widely accepted that the cremations began on the night of Friday, September 28, more than 24 hours after soldiers opened fire on unarmed Buddhist monks and civilians demonstrating on the streets of Rangoon.

They have continued at intervals right up to the end of last week, according to local people. Taxi drivers refused to take a foreigner to the area, saying they were too frightened and that the army moved bodies after the shoot-on-sight curfew.

The best estimate among foreign diplomats here is that between 100 and 200 people lost their lives in the Rangoon disturbances. The number of Buddhist monks arrested is put at about 1,000, while about 3,000 civilians have also been detained. The regime’s own statement is that 2,093 people are in custody.

The Chinese army carried out a similar practice of anonymous cremations in Beijing after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when many unidentified bodies were disposed of at the city’s Babaoshan crematorium. The true number of dead has never been established.

A more disturbing aspect of the Burmese regime’s conduct is the apparently continuous stream of deaths days after the guns fell silent.

“We have first-hand evidence from respected Burmese doctors that hospitals and clinics were ordered not to give any treatment to the wounded,” said a foreign medical expert, “so it’s not possible to assess the victims by those treated in public hospitals.

“We do know that some injured people were treated in hiding in people’s homes. We assume that beaten, injured or wounded people taken into custody have got no treatment and may have died.”

This evidence has given rise to grave concern for the wellbeing of elderly monks and very young novices rounded up, by all accounts, with brutality.

There has been a drumbeat of allegations that soldiers and militiamen unleashed crazed violence against these holy men when they crashed into monasteries in the small hours of the night over the past week. Blood-stained robes, shattered statues and defaced holy pictures have been caught on digital images smuggled out of the country.

Some of the worst violence appears to have occurred at the Mwe Kya Jan monastery in northwest Rangoon. According to graphic testimony published in yesterday’s Thai newspapers, the soldiers lined the monks up against a wall and smashed each of their shaven heads against the wall in succession. The monks were roughed up and thrown into trucks, but the abbot was so severely beaten that he died on the spot, the reports claimed.

It was not possible to corroborate these reports yesterday owing to a heavy security presence at the monastery. But two boy monks asking for alms on a street in a nearby area appealed for help in their limited English.

“We are very frightened,” said the elder, who was about 14, while the younger, about 10, said: “I want to go home to see my mother and father again.”

Foreign observers experienced in monitoring human rights here say the stories of beatings, abuse and starvation in custody are likely to be accurate.

The regime has refused to grant access for the International Committee of the Red Cross to inspect the conditions of those in detention. Humanitarian workers said they hoped the British, French and American governments would take the lead in pressing the case for access at the UN security council and in private talks with the Burmese leaders and with China.

An attempt to observe an alleged detention centre at the Rangoon Institute of Technology was halted by soldiers who waved away a car at gunpoint. Through sheets of monsoon rain, trucks could be seen parked outside what appeared to be an administration block, but there was no sign of activity.

The United Nations special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, said on Friday in New York that he feared “mass relocations” of monks and protesters had taken place.

The systematic arrests have continued at night – a convoy of lorries and other vehicles rumbled past my hotel windows long after midnight – initially puzzling diplomats and activists, who wondered how military intelligence drew up its lists of those to be arrested.

The answer, it seems, was a grimly paradoxical use of the internet, whose liberating role in disseminating images and sound of the protests was prematurely celebrated by many as marking the world’s first globalised on-line revolt, instantly dubbed the Saffron revolution.

It is now clear that the regime was techno-savvy, patient and thorough. It kept the internet open long enough to allow its own cyber-operatives to down-load the images and recordings of street protests to identify the protesters. The internet is now shut down.

“Every Burmese street has a block registration with photographs of each resident on the wall of the local administration office,” said an international aid official, whose agency used the system to help track recipients of aid. Burmese have given accounts of soldiers and plain-clothes men arriving to make arrests with computer-generated photographs of their targets pulled off the internet.

On Friday government security agents raided the offices of Japan’s international aid agency, attempting to seize e-mail records and computers, several foreign sources said. After protests, the agents backed off. The news caused staff at other aid agencies to take steps to secure their own computer records.

The one ray of optimism in Rangoon this weekend has come on the political front. On Friday night a Burmese crowd in a teashop gasped to see the first pictures for many years of Aung San Suu Kyi on television.

The news programme showed the world’s most famous political prisoner meeting Gambari at her home at 54 University Avenue.

The junta’s leader, Than Shwe, told Gambari he would meet her under certain conditions, an offer that was reported to have been rejected but which, in local political terms, was remarkable.

But among the deeply superstitious Burmese there was a murmuring of hope after another piece of inauspicious news for the generals. There was delight in the teashops at the reported death from cancer of Soe Win, the junta’s “prime minister”.

Unlike his fellow countrymen, Soe Win had benefited from the best therapy that local doctors, aided by specialists in Singa-pore, could provide. The “tea-shop telegraph” also flashed the news that Soe Win’s brother had died in a failed attempt to donate marrow to fight the illness.

In a land where portents, stars and horoscopes are revered, it was a dreadful omen.

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