Defiance, fear and brutality as the junta turns on the people

It was a day of terror and confusion, with hundreds of monks rounded up by military police and at least nine people killed. But still the protests continue. Rosalind Russell reports from Rangoon
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I was half a mile from the Sule pagoda when I saw the people running, fear and panic written on their faces. Drivers were making hasty U-turns and speeding back on the wrong side of the street. The driver of my battered Toyota taxi refused to go any further, so I stepped out into the hot, humid street.

Stallholders were hurriedly bundling away their vegetables, DVDs and rails of childrens' clothes. Two boys, postcard-sellers, aged no more than eight or nine, ran up to me, still clutching their gaudy pictures of tourist scenes. "Madam it is dangerous for you," one said, offering to lead me away to safety.

Rounding the corner of Rangoon's main avenue, the gleaming temple can be seen at the other end.

But we met a cloud of tear gas. Crowds were retreating, scurrying from the golden stupa towards us, and lines of soldiers were advancing towards them. The crackle of gunfire came then, the sound was unmistakable. That's when I darted into a doorway, joining a group of people watching the drama of this bloody crackdown from the sanctuary of a five-star hotel lobby.

Shwedagon, Rangoon's famous golden pagoda, the most important Buddhist monument in Burma, and the focus of protests since the days of British rule, had been completely closed off from early yesterday morning. Hearing that protesters were gathering at Sule, the city's smaller temple, but also a traditional rallying point for militant students and monks, I made my way there.

But now the retreating crowd was fleeing from the pagoda and the soldiers followed them, advancing in strict, terrifying, military formation. The rhythmic stamping of their boots on the road surface was chilling. For 10 days Burma's monks had marched. Now the enforcers of the brutal junta were on the march. Yesterday anti-government protesters were not monks, but mostly young men in T-shirts and sarong-style Burmese longyis. They looked terrified, but they also seemed filled with rage. They would run away and then hesitate, some turning back towards the soldiers as if considering a final charge.

Just by being out in the street they were showing extraordinary defiance of the hated regime. Loudhailers mounted on a van warned them to vacate the public areas or be shot within 10 minutes. "Clear the street or we will take extreme action!" the voice repeated in eerie reminders of the 1988 uprising in which thousands died. The protesters reached an intersection where they stopped and began chanting, "Give us freedom! Give us freedom!" and then a strange, almost hopeful roar went up – a last show of defiance. Some threw bricks and stones in frustration. Others tried to regroup at the nearby railway station where more civilians had arrived, piling out of minibuses and vans. Their determination and anger was evident. For anyone on that protest yesterday was putting himself in the line of fire.

The gunshots I heard may have been the rounds that killed the Japanese news photographer who died near the Sule pagoda. By the time of the nightly curfew, the toll from the crackdown which began on Wednesday was nine dead. That, at least is what the Burmese state broadcaster was admitting.

The demonstrators had arrived at the Sule temple shortly after midday yesterday, ordinary lay people replacing the throngs of monks who for days had formed the backbone of protests against Burma's military government. Overnight, the junta had launched pre-dawn raids on at least two Buddhist monasteries in a pre-emptive effort to try to undermine those leading the demonstrations that have rocked Rangoon. At least 100 monks were dragged away and arrested and many were kicked and beaten.

A monk at the Kyar Yan monastery showed reporters blood stains on the concrete floors and said at least half of the monastery's 150 monks were taken away. At the Moe Gaung monastery, in the north of Rangoon, a number of monks were also reportedly seized. Myint Thein, a spokesman for the National League for Democracy (NLD) is also believed to have been arrested.

From the composition of the crowds in the streets of Rangoon yesterday, it looked as if the majority of remaining monks, whose cinnamon coloured robes have filled the streets for days, had been penned into their quarters.

This is the worst unrest Burma has seen since 1988, but it is unclear whether, without the religious leaders, the protesters can sustain the momentum of their rebellion. However, the harsh treatment which was meted out to their revered Buddhist teachers may have fuelled the pent-up anger of many people. Thousands of civilians were on the streets yesterday to take the place of the clergy, apparently resolved to keep the protests going against the regime.

The demonstrators, accompanied by just eight monks, had sat down on the street in front of the heavily guarded Sule pagoda to show respect to their spiritual leaders. When ordered to disperse, they stayed put, holding their ground until hundreds of soldiers charged them with batons, meting out beatings to anyone in their path. Then came the tear gas and shots.

A man in a blood-soaked shirt was carried past the front of the hotel. From the upper floors we watched as the crowds scattered around downtown Rangoon and began a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with their adversaries.

But the soldiers were in control. In dark green uniforms with red, purple and orange scarves like scouts, they cordoned off roads and took up positions at intersections. Plumes of smoke rose from behind buildings and we heard the occasional burst of automatic gunfire. At least three people were shot dead in these skirmishes.

By the curfew at dusk, everyone seemed to have melted away. The soldiers, sent in to quell the revolt with their guns, despite assurances to foreign diplomats by the junta yesterday that it would "show restraint", piled into their tarpaulin-covered trucks.

Monks' order

Burma's monasteries are considered hotbeds of the pro-democracy movement but which clerics are at the vanguard of opposition to the military regime is not yet clear. What is clear is they are young, recently organised, increasingly outraged at their government's treatment of its people, and that their decision to confront the junta is a grassroots effort rather than something imposed by senior clergy.

A clue to the monks' identity came two weeks ago when – after the authorities had manhandled some monks during an earlier protest – it was announced an organisation called the Monks Alliance Group had been formed.

The alliance went on to say that if the regime did not meet its four demands – an apology to the monks, the release of all political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi, a reduction in the prices of fuel and food, and dialogue with the democracy activists – then it would "boycott" the regime.

The monks were ordered: "The clergy... must boycott the violent, mean, cruel, ruthless, pitiless soldier kings."