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Waves of freedom will keep rolling on

By Anne Hyland, New Zealand Herald, Oct 23, 2007

Yangon, Myanmar -- There is talk from Yangon to Mandalay of more protests. From the educated elite to the struggling, sinewy rickshaw drivers, all say with conviction that it will happen within three months.

"This is the beginning, we must face them" says 92-year-old Ludu Daw Ahmar, an eminent literary figure admired for her outspoken anti-Government views. "We are struggling, but victory is with us."

But victory seems a long way from the streets of the northern Myanmar city of Mandalay, where the wheelchair-bound Ahmar lives, and even more remote in the country's heavily policed former capital Yangon (formerly Rangoon), to the south.

In both cities, martial law remains in place between 10pm and 4am. Razor wire and roadblocks are set up outside Buddhist monasteries, Buddhist universities and the holy Sule and Shwedagon pagodas. Soldiers wearing flipflops guard these sites with semi-automatic machine guns and crates of bullets.

Burma's revered monks captured the world's attention last month when they joined civilians in the biggest anti-Government protests in 20 years. But today, few monks can be seen anywhere in Yangon or Mandalay.

The Herald visited more than a dozen monasteries and Buddhist universities in both cities in the past week, and few monks were in residence. Many have returned to their villages; others remain detained by the military, which used batons, teargas and guns to stop the protests last month.

"We are in danger," says one 24-year-old monk at a Buddhist university, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals. "But I don't think the people can do anything."

His belief is not shared by "the people".

A Burmese business journalist, who also would not reveal his name, said the protests would come in waves.

"It is like the sea," he said. "This was the first wave and it will be followed by another wave soon, maybe in November or December. People will rise up. They are angry, but they will protest peacefully again. They [the military] will fire and people will be killed like before. People know this."

The junta says only 10 people were killed in its crackdown on the protests, but foreign embassies and human rights groups put the numbers at between 50 and 200. About 2100 have been arrested.

A Japanese journalist filming the protests was killed by the military. One diplomat in Yangon, who requested anonymity, believes that if this journalist had not been killed, the military would not have admitted that anyone had died.

His view gained credibility after reports in the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper. On October 5, it began to rewrite history, in an article that said: "No monk was injured or arrested, and no public member was injured in the incident either". The "incident" is the protests that ended with military goons smashing the heads of protesters.

"My friend is in jail," a Mandalay rickshaw driver says. He calls himself only Zaw. "I was in the demonstrations, but I ran away when the Army came. The Government - nobody likes. It is violent. They killed monks, and the monk is noble."

Zaw pedals fast as he looks about, watchful that his conversation about the protests might be overhead or photographed by a Government spy. Tourists are now under heavy surveillance, suspected of being foreign journalists or enemies of the state.

Zaw is convinced the protests will resume early next year. But the Yangon diplomat is not so sure. "The jury is still out on whether there will be more protests."

Last month's protests began after a leap in petrol prices in mid-August from 500 kyat to 2500 kyat (about 50c to about $2.50) a gallon. After the price rise, ordinary Burmese found it difficult to feed themselves and couldn't make the daily donations of food to monks - an important part of the Buddhist belief in earning merit. The military claims that Myanmar's inflation rate is about 20 per cent, but the business journalist says it is twice that.

The junta is feared and widely despised by most of Myanmar's 47 million people, who have lived under military rule since 1962. Its economic mismanagement and international sanctions have left the economy in tatters. The average Burmese survives on less than US$220 (about $285 a year). A kilo of rice costs 1200 kyat, which most Burmese find expensive.

The 20-year-old cars and buses that crawl around the roads, the broken footpaths in the cities, and the decaying buildings everywhere are the most visible signs of economic decline. But gas and oil deposits may change this.

Myanmar received about US$2 billion this year from oil and gas exports. This could grow to US$20 billion annually in five years, says a Yangon diplomat. This wealth could further entrench the power of the junta, and sanctions imposed by mostly Western Governments may have even less effect on the military than they do now.

The pressure from the crackdown on the protests has had some unexpected effects on military families. Locals told the Herald many soldiers were upset at having to shoot monks, but feared they would be killed themselves if they didn't.

The brutal crackdown has resulted in a dramatic decline in tourism, and five-star hotels in Yangon are offering rooms for US$20 a night.

The military keeps a tight grip on life in Yangon, where dissident activity is at its highest. Mobile phones, widely used in nearby Cambodia and Laos, are rare because the military imposes a US$2000 price tag on a SIM card.

The demonstrations by monks and civilians were brought to an end by the shootings on September 26 and 27. But suspected dissidents are still being arrested.

Among those detained is a popular comedian, 60-year-old Par Par Lay, who was snatched from his Mandalay home by security forces at midnight on September 25. It is the third time in 20 years that Par Par Lay has been arrested. He and his two brothers, also comedians, have been banned from performing their slapstick-cum-satire shows in public because they fearlessly make fun of the military.

Par Par Lay's family says he was not involved in the recent protests, but he was still arrested. "My brother is very well known and they [the military] think he could organise a lot of people to protest," explains his younger brother Lu Maw. "We don't know where he is. We want to know if he's alive."

He has reason to be concerned. A week ago the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners issued a report claiming that Win Shwe, a 42-year-old member of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), died after torture and interrogation following his arrest on September 26 near Mandalay.

Par Par Lay's second arrest occurred in 1996 at NDL leader Aung San Suu Kyi's house, where he had been performing. He spent seven years doing hard labour, and was released only after international pressure from several Hollywood comedians.

"Please we need your help, we need the international publicity to help my brother," says Lu Maw.

His words are echoed by Ahmar. "Please help us in any way you can," she says.

Ahmar has seen off the English and Japanese rulers of Myanmar, but in her remaining years she may not be able to wave goodbye to the generals too.

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