Hell and heroism: Tyranny that rules by terror is threatened by brave few

In a rare report from Burma, Andrew Buncombe, Asia correspondent, talks to some of the dissenters who live in fear of the ruling junta
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The Junta has a list – a list that has reverberated through this rain-soaked, fear-ridden city. Arranged in order of their “wanted” priority, the list contains 22 names and faces, addresses and personal details, anything that could help the military find these pro-democracy activists and throw them behind bars.

Scores have already been locked up, dragged off to jails from where emerge reports of abuse and torture. But the junta is desperate to find those still at large.

Burma’s military government, which has ruled the former British colony with a rare brutality for more than half a century, is facing its most serious challenge for at least a decade. Every day there are flashes of resistance, flickering protests against the regime’s unbending rule. And yesterday, in what may be a crucial development, more than 1,000 saffron-robed Buddhist monks marched in defiant protest in two separate cities, only to have tear-gas grenades fired at them by the authorities.

This wave of protests was started by a group of charismatic activists that came of age during widespread demonstrations two decades ago which severely threatened the regime. They seized on an unexplained government decision to increase fuel prices and anger over the soaring prices fed into general despair among the down-trodden population about the regime’s cruelty and ruinous governance.

“In the past the regime has arrested people and then released them after a few months. I don’t think that is the case here. I think the regime is preparing to throw the book at [the activists it has arrested],” said one western diplomat in Rangoon, Burma’s largest city. “I think they are very sophisticated at spotting leaders who people will rally around.”

The diplomat added: “I was not here in 1988 but people say that in ‘88 there were [initially] sporadic demonstrations and that eventually everybody then joined in. If the monks join in that could make a huge difference. They could get people out. That is what happened in ‘88.”

The ability to rally ordinary people, to persuade them to confront the police and militias and to march against the regime is precisely why the authorities are so keen to trace those activists still free. The list of names, which includes seven women, has been circulated to government officials and hotel owners in Rangoon, who have been told to report anything suspicious. Police have even been showing up at foreign embassies with photographs and asking whether activists have taken refuge inside. “We have been instructed to inform higher authorities immediately if we sight any of these people in our area,” one official told the Associated Press.

The Burmese regime, known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has a strong and clear advantage as it confronts its opponents. Two decades after the demonstrations of 1988 which it put down with the death of thousands of civilians, it is wealthier, more secure and more experienced at dealing with protestors. It also knows that the overwhelming majority of its citizens are too terrified to act. And having banned the international media and silenced its own press, it has controlled almost all the information that reaches the eyes and ears of the public.

Indeed, it may be the sinister normality of Burma that is the country’s most disturbing signature. In the decaying colonial city of Rangoon there is barely a policeman or a soldier in sight, people with money are busy buying air conditioners and stereo systems driven in from China while traders set up their stalls on the street and hawk their wares to passers-by.

Yet over the course of four storm-lashed days during which Rangoon’s broken streets over-flooded and people huddled under makeshift shelters, The Independent was able to speak to half-a-dozen pro-democracy campaigners desperate for change. The names of these individuals - members of the National League for Democracy, the political group headed by the imprisoned Nobel laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi - are not on the Junta’s list, but they, like so many others, live in constant fear of the regime and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

“The big difference is not with us but with the government. We are the same but they have money and experience,” said a senior NLD member who acts as the group’s spokesman.

The first of the protests that triggered this clampdown by the SPDC were launched last month by members of the ’88 Generation Students group, an organisation that was heavily involved in the protests 19 years ago. Among those arrested was a high-profile activist and poet who goes by the nickname Min Ko Naing or Conqueror of Kings, and who was only released from jail in 2006 after 15 years imprisonment.

There has been no word on Min Ko Naing’s fate since he was dragged away on August 22. NLD sources said around 65 people had been arrested with a dozen or so leaders being held in the country’s notorious Insein Jail and the remainder detained at the Kyaik Ka San park, a former race course in Rangoon. Yet campaigners based in neighbouring Thailand say the number of people arrested is around 120. Diplomats say they have heard reports that the prisoners have been tortured but that they have no conformation of this.

Given the iron grip exerted by the regime on the media, it is difficult for campaigners to organise. A 70-year-old journalist who was released from jail two years ago having served 13 years, said: “There is no free press. We have no chance to speak to one another. We cannot tell other people about our experiences. Even the NLD cannot open its office. There is no freedom. No democracy. No rule of law.”

Another journalist, who like the 70-year-old, can now only write using a pen name and then only about topics that the newspapers deem “safe”, spent 17 years in jail. He was also released in 2005. “It was very hard to survive [in jail] but we have to struggle for our cause,” he said. After nearly two decades in prison, he also emerged to see that while the cause for which he had given so much had barely progressed, the underlying desire of the people remained as strong as ever. “After 17 years nothing had changed, just the roads. People had not changed. People still encourage me to try and get democracy.”

This determination is revealed by the flurry of scattered protests that have broken out across the country, coinciding with a massive hike in fuel prices by the government that saw the cost of petrol and compressed natural gas increase by 500 per cent. While I was talking with the NLD spokesman his mobile phone constantly rang, often with news of another demonstration. One morning, his phone trilling like a wind chime, he reports there has been a demonstration in the town of Lappottar, 200 miles to the north of Rangoon when 3 activists had tried to set off on a march to the former capital.

The following day he reported there had been a demonstration in Taung Goke township, where two people had been arrested. He said a local NLD official claimed 10,000 people had come out in support of the protestors, a number he said he could not personally believe but that the local official had been adamant was correct.

The western diplomat said: “I think these demonstrations show that the pro-democracy spirit has not died. When I came here a couple of years ago people said those involved in the movement were too and that they had no support. There are not a lot of leaders but the ‘88 Generation people have provided leadership and have shown their effectiveness at gathering people together during the last year.”

The Burmese military regime, in control of the country since 1962, has been widely condemned by the international community and some of its neighbours. When the authorities recently concluded a 15-year effort to draw-up a new constitution, the resulting document was condemned by the US state department as a “sham”. It said the national convention that agreed the constitution “clearly do not represent the will of the Burmese people, nor are they a step toward democracy”. Even First Lady Laura Bush spoke out against the regime.

Another western diplomat, also based in Rangoon, said of the convention: “The regime has no understanding of what democracy means, of the value of dialogue, or of the abhorrent way in which it suppresses the voice of the people. The way it has ignored the demands of the ethnic groups in the National Convention and the unnecessary detention of people peacefully making their point indicates the regime's true intention: to keep tight control and to ensure power and wealth remains in the hands of the few.”

But despite complete sanctions enacted by the US and partial sanctions imposed by the EU and Britain, the regime is still courted by regional powers such as India and China which are desperate to secure deals for Burma’s vast natural gas resources – much of which is located in the offshore Shwe gas fields. Anything other than the most muted criticism of the regime’s human rights record has been shoved aside as the two countries battle over their shared neighbour’s resources. Both have signed arms deals with the regime.

“The regime’s brutality and readiness for violence in part secures its daily survival, but the gas deals are integral on a longer term economic level, providing billions of dollars to private and state bank accounts that would otherwise be relatively empty,” said Matthew Smith, a campaigner with the group EarthRights International. “From this we can infer at least two things: one, the regime will stop at nothing to secure the export of its most lucrative asset, natural gas, and two, foreign oil and gas corporations are in a unique position of power because they provide the capital and expertise the regime presently lacks.”

Campaigners insist progress can be made with Burma. “We do see hope, inside and outside the country,” said Mark Farmaner, of the Burma Campaign UK. “This regime is very vulnerable to pressure, if it were only applied. The international community is finally starting to pay more attention to those brave people making a stand in the country. If they turn words into practical action to support those in Burma, we could start to see movement.”

On the ground in Burma it is hard to find hope. People are not only terrified but they see little prospect for their country. One afternoon a tour guide nervously led the way to a teashop, away from watchful eyes. Sitting on a low plastic seat he casually revealed that he too had been a political prisoner in the early 1990s and that he had spent two years in jail. For the first six months his family had no idea where he was.

The 42-year-old said he had four children. “I tell my children that they must study hard. I tell them to do well at English,” he said, leaning his body forward and speaking almost in a whisper. “I want them to move abroad – there is no future for them in Burma.”

And yet for all the despair, there are perhaps flashes of hope. Despite the regime’s efforts to ban a free media and limit what information the public receives, in the last couple of years Rangoon has seen the opening of numerous internet cafes where those who can afford to, log-on go and sit for hours. While the government actively blocks web-based email such as Gmail and Hotmail, the young people who run the internet cafes are enthusiastically adept at discovering alternative servers and other solutions to the ban, allowing free access to the web.

These cafes are usually packed with young people sitting at cubicles, head-phones on and bashing away at their keyboards. The odd surreptitious glance over their shoulders suggests most are busy “speaking” online with friends. But it is hard to sit in those cafes surrounded by the young people of this country and not to wonder whether they are also sharing with their friends and relatives around the globe stories, information and details about this tortured country that the regime does not want the world to know.