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Burmese Whispers: A Few Voices From the Deepening Silence

By SETH MYDANS, New York Times, October 14, 2007

Bangkok, Thailand -- The world saw them flooding the streets in Myanmar last month, Burmese citizens emboldened by tens of thousands of red-robed monks to cast aside the fear that had held them down for two decades. For a few buoyant days, the streets of Yangon, the main city, belonged to them, and they were free.

<< CLOSELY WATCHED Burmese soldiers guard Sule Pagoda in Yangon, a site of protests last month.

But few outsiders have heard their individual voices. The ruling junta crushed the protests at the end of the month, and since then has carried out a campaign of nighttime arrests, cleansing monasteries and neighborhoods of people they say rose up against them. The fear has returned, people say, and is sharper than before.

And so it was an act of courage for a few Burmese to share their thoughts with a long-time foreign resident of Yangon who knows them well and is known to this reporter.

The foreigner recorded and transcribed the words of a dozen people and translated the accounts of those who did not speak English. The texts were then sent out through a private channel, evading a government clampdown on the Internet.

The anonymity of these people is part of their story. Neither the foreigner nor the speakers can be identified for fear of retribution against those who speak out. Two teachers, a young man, a housewife, an abbot, a businessman — all tell the same story in their different ways. It is the story of a people ruled by terror, stripped of freedom, who do not know when their suffering will end.

A housewife recalled the brutality she saw while shopping for food Sept. 28:

I saw people in the street just beaten up for no reason — just walking along the road, not even part of the protests. There was this young boy, he was alone and not shouting with the crowd or clapping. This captain came up to him, just started beating him and the boy fell on the street. Then the police pushed him into one of those trucks that were lined up to take demonstrators.

As they pushed him, he fell again. Then the police took out a big stick and gave him a huge blow on the back. After that, the captain told everyone in the street that they had 10 minutes to clear off. People were running for their lives. The vendors started to grab their things. There was one lady selling fritters and she had a big vat of hot oil — she had to walk with this oil and they came after her and beat her to make her move faster. I saw two boys at that moment walking up with cellphones. The captain grabbed the boys, took their cellphones and pushed them into the truck.

Someone who was with me at a previous job lost her son in these protests. He might have been on his way home, but we don’t know. This mother had a friend in the army and she asked him for help. He told her to stay home and — no questions. The son, her only child, is still missing.

A young man described how the junta has clamped down on social exchange, destroying trust among people:

There is no more connection between people. It’s been broken. In our own neighborhood, the security groups will arrest anyone who is heard talking about these events. Even at tea shops we can’t talk about these things. These thugs will remember who you are and come to arrest you later. We can only talk to people we know on the street and never to strangers now. No one says anything at the market and everything has to be in secret. The bars have emptied out both because no one has any more money and what fun is it to get drunk when you can’t talk?

Even now we don’t dare take our transistor radios to listen to foreign broadcasts outside. Just in the last few days, we have been threatened with arrest by local authorities for doing this in our ward. Anyone with a cellphone or camera will have it confiscated.

This is not the end. This is just a stopping point and we are not satisfied. We don’t know the future but we will keep our anger burning inside.

A teacher talked about the pain of seeing Buddhism desecrated and the fear of the military that spread among the monks.

It is almost coming on 50 years that we have clung to our culture by tolerating this military government. But something we revered was insulted.

I cannot continue to tolerate this. We only hope that bad karma will fall upon them but there’s nothing else we can do now.

I know dozens of monks. One monk is very old. He is 78. It never occurred to him that in his lifetime he would have to hide. The day after the shootings started, I went to this monastery and the faces that I saw on those monks was something I had never seen. It is not fear. It was a sadness so unbelievable.

Now the young monks that I talked to — who weren’t rounded up — they want to disrobe. They don’t have the moral courage to go on. “Better to be a layman,” they said.

I told them that this would be a terrible loss for our Buddhism. “No,” they say, “What’s the use of meditation? The power of meditation can’t stop them from beating us.”

The worst thing now is that no amount of persuasion from the abbots will stop the young monks from disrobing.

An abbot of a monastery where hundreds of children are taught said three-quarters of the monks had fled:

How difficult this is. ...They ran away for their security. ... We have students studying English but our English-teaching monks have left us. We are very unhappy now. I would like to invite guests to see this, but I am afraid.

A teacher who organizes the curriculum for the monks added:

When the soldiers raided the monastery, they came into the school and tore down pictures of some tourists with whom the monks had been practicing English at Shwedagon Pagoda. The soldiers would circle the monastery at night to see if these monks would come back so they could be arrested.

A businessman whose company lost an enormous amount of business during the upheaval lamented Myanmar’s isolation:

I joined the peaceful demonstrations to show my support. I would do it again. I don’t agree with sanctions on Myanmar. Of course, I may be biased because I’m a businessman. My own experience of traveling to other countries opened my mind and changed my life. I loved the freedom I found in the United States. It was something I had never experienced. If I hadn’t spent time abroad, I would have ended up as a military man. Or else I could have been an informer exposing the conversation we’re having right now.

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