Burma's fight for freedom: Troops reclaim the streets as monks pray for a miracle

Burma's Buddhist monks have all but vanished. Those that have not been rounded up can only look on helplessly as the junta's generals take control. Rosalind Russell and Peter Popham report
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The Independent Online

In the end, a week was all it took. In that time Burma has gone from ethereal dreams of freedom to a vicious new reality in which protesters are chased off the streets and Buddhist monasteries are sealed away behind barbed wire. The saffron revolution has been sat on hard, the only way the Burmese generals know.

Yesterday in Rangoon, despite the troops on every corner, clusters of insanely brave protesters continued to dash out and taunt the military before running away again. But the men and women at the heart of this revolt, Burma's Buddhist monks and nuns, had vanished.

Columns of army trucks packed with soldiers patrolled the streets, with military police on nearly every street corner in a show of force which strangled efforts to revive the protests that had seized world attention all week. Soldiers stopped and searched young men walking around the city centre, ordering some to squat while they checked their papers, a calculated humiliation. In central Rangoon, men who had aroused suspicion were thrown into waiting vans.

A bookseller stood in his shop doorway and watched the young soldiers stopping the passers-by. What did he think? "In this country, we are all blind and deaf," he said. "People have learned to keep quiet." The internet – restricted by the junta during the week to quell the protests – remained down, but Rangoon residents were eager for news. The owner of an electronics shop said his stock of short-wave radios had sold out as soon as they arrived.

A heavy tropical rainstorm helped to douse tensions, but by mid-afternoon a small group of men tried to gather to the west of Sule Pagoda, clapping and chanting. A dozen dark-green army trucks packed with soldiers sped to the scene, accompanied by two trucks carrying the hated Swan Ar Shin plain-clothed paramilitaries, with a prison van bringing up the rear. The crowd dispersed.

But the monks, who led days of dignified demonstrations between the city's golden pagodas, were nowhere to be seen. Those temples are now military encampments, surrounded by concrete blocks and barbed wire. Soldiers have raided monasteries by night, arresting monks and forcing many back to their homes.

The conventional view was that the military wouldn't dare touch the monks. The generals are Buddhists too, and know in their bones that there is nothing more impious than to abuse the holy men. But the survival instinct trumps even that. Now the monks are treated with the same ruthlessness as the regime's other internal enemies, the ethnic insurgents in the borderlands.

From the perspective of the generals, last weekend was when the rebellion began to look menacing. For several days the pongyi, the monks, had been allowed to process through Burma's cities with no state presence to hinder them. Then last Saturday a group of 500 of them arrived at the barricade that closes off the road where Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma's democracy movement, has been under house arrest for four years. Instead of being warned off and sent away, for unknown reasons they were allowed to pass. They walked to the gate of her compound, and she came out to meet them. The moment was captured by a mobile phone: Ms Suu Kyi, in canary yellow, her palms pressed together in greeting, separated from the monks by a line of riot police.

For the first time the new vanguard of Burma's revolution met its heroic leader – and somebody in the security forces let it happen. Alarm bells must have gone off at once in the new capital of Naypyidaw, where the generals hunker down. That same afternoon the rumour spread that the junta had decided to crack down on the monks, and when they tried to get to Ms Suu Kyi's house the next day, they were turned back. But by now 10,000 monks were conservatively estimated to be on the street, a great maroon river with the Burmese public cheering them on, prostrating before them, proferring water and foot balm – and increasingly marching alongside them.

Even more marched on Monday, providing the most stunning image of the rebellion – an entire, broad Rangoon boulevard packed with monks, as far as the eye could see. And still no police. It seemed the most pacific uprising the world had ever seen, but it entered a new phase when 50 leaders of Ms Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), threw in their lot with the monks and joined the march with party banners.

Now people were braced for the worst. Some schools, government offices and businesses failed to open, anticipating trouble, and at last the other shoe dropped. The regime's minister for religious affairs came on television to demand the marches stop – or there would be unspecified consequences, "according to the law".

But on Tuesday tens of thousands turned out once more, converging on Sule Pagoda and Shwedagon Pagoda, the two great Buddhist shrines that had become the focus of the uprising. But there was a change of mood. Some monks carried the fighting peacock flag, emblem of the 3,000 protesters slaughtered at the culmination of the protests of 1988. It seemed they could be preparing for martyrdom.

Late in the afternoon, army vans toured the city centre, threatening to break up protests, which (megaphones declared) were illegal. Then units of the Tatmadaw (Burmese army) began pouring into the city centre. Hundreds took up position around Sule Pagoda once the thousands of peaceful protesters had gone home, getting ready to seal it off.

Wednesday was the ninth day of the uprising of the monks, and the day it began to go horribly wrong. Tens of thousands, monks and ordinary Burmese, were back on the street in defiance of the military; if the numbers were fewer than on Monday or Tuesday, it was only because the army had bottled up many monks in their monasteries. But now soldiers trailed them in lorries, finally resorting to arms – firing tear gas around Shwedagon Pagoda, firing rounds in the air to stop the crowds from entering the shrine's grounds, and shooting to kill. It was the same by Sule Pagoda.

The uprising saw its first fatality – at least one dead and several wounded. And monks who still stood in the soldiers' way were beaten and carried off. The taboo against harming the men in robes had fallen.

By Thursday the mood had darkened dramatically. Rangoon was enveloped in gunsmoke and the stink of cordite, but thousands of terrified people remained determined to show their contempt and hatred for the junta. Mobile coverage was drastically reduced. Just when there was real, terrible news to report, it became far more difficult to communicate.

But the cruellest image of the week did make it out: the moment when Japanese video journalist Kenji Nagai was shot dead at point-blank range outside Sule Pagoda. The amateur video coverage of the killing quickly went round the world, infuriating the Japanese government and shaming the junta in the eyes of its few friends, such as the Chinese authorities. Soldiers went through the smart Trader's Hotel in the city centre, supposedly looking for foreign journalists covertly filming the crackdown.

On Thursday nine people were said to have died from gunshot wounds, and the word was of monasteries raided and hundreds of monks arrested, many beaten. By Friday, with no internet, rumours were rife about generals falling out among themselves; there was patchy, hit-and-run protesting on the streets. More people died, but it was impossible to know how many. Foreign leaders, including Gordon Brown, expressed the fear that the toll was far worse than the junta admitted.

Yesterday the news was that the UN envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, had finally been permitted to fly into the country. He was taken to a meeting with government officials and the Chinese ambassador to negotiate his itinerary. He will want to meet Ms Suu Kyi: the only photo of her in four years, until last Saturday, was taken with the envoy during his last visit. Now her street is barricaded with four rows of barbed wire and a sandbagged machine-gun position manned by a soldier.

Few believe Mr Gambari can achieve much, however: Burma's generals are accustomed to ignoring international condemnations. But this uprising isn't over. The junta has only managed to quell the protest by turning Rangoon into an armed camp.

"At some point, the soldiers have to go back to barracks and the monks will return to their monasteries," a Western aid worker pointed out. "The government can't keep a lid on this for ever."

Burma diary: Days that shook the world

Message boards and blogs from Monday 24 to Saturday 29 September brought the voices of Burma to the world:

Monday "We are very insecure as we don't know what the government is planning. The government-controlled papers say the monks are trying to agitate the public. This can be an excuse to start attacking the monks. I hope there won't be any bloodbath"

Soe Soe, Mandalay

Tuesday "Today the city is quiet and people go to work as normal. There are lots of rumours, but for the time being everything is calm. People are anxious to see what's going to happen. According to the government's warnings, today could be a big day."

Michel, Rangoon

Wednesday "I have just talked to my sister who lives in Rangoon ... The junta are using dirty tactics – they don't fire guns, but beat people with the backs of their rifles. The monks defiantly did not fight back, just endured the pain and died."

Anonymous Burmese woman

Thursday "There are many deaths on the streets of Rangoon. The military is taking away the bodies to hide their inhumane violence."

Wai, Rangoon

Friday "People seem to be determined to continue, despite the bullets, beatings and killings. Now is the time for the international community to take action."

Anonymous international resident, Rangoon

Saturday "I just received a call from a friend in Rangoon. He says the army have warned that if anyone is seen running into a house for sanctuary, they're going to demolish the building."

Neil, UK

Further reading: 'Letters from Burma' by Aung San Suu Kyi (Penguin, £8.99)