Monks vanish as Burmese troops step up presence

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The Independent Online

The gates were open at Rangoon's glittering Shwedagon temple yesterday but soldiers, not monks, wandered its marble-floored shrines and pavilions.

Five days after Burma's military leaders began a crackdown on protesting monks and their civilian supporters, the red-robed Buddhist clergy, normally seen in their thousands around the city, have vanished. And the UN's special envoy sent to confront the military junta was stalled for yet another day.

"The monks are gone. We are worried about them. We don't know where they are," said a young guide at the temple. Usually hundreds of monks would be milling around the golden, bell-shaped, stupa – praying, chatting quietly in groups or explaining the significance of gem-encrusted statues or shrines to visitors.

Soldiers with rifles have taken their place, their bare feet the only mark of respect to Burma's most sacred Buddhist site. There are few visitors, and stall-holders selling paper flowers and incense sticks for offerings have little trade.

"It is strange now," said the guide, out of the earshot of soldiers. "We don't think the army should be at the temple. We think the monks have been taken away. We think they are in jail."

A senior monk told The Independent at the weekend he believed 3,000 monks had been detained by Burmese security forces, and were being held in police and military camps.

Burma's Buddhist clergy spearheaded 10 days of street demonstrations against the country's military rulers, until the army cleared the streets with tear gas, baton charges and gunfire, killing at least nine people. By night, under cover of a curfew, soldiers have raided monasteries, intimidating, beating and arresting monks.

Rangoon residents say civilian vigilante groups, armed only with rocks and sticks, have tried to protect the revered clergy by blocking the gates of monasteries and confronting troops.

Collecting alms, mostly gifts of food, each day from devotees, Burma's monkhood is privy to the population's increasing economic hardship. Corrupt generals have ruined a country rich in natural resources and many families survive on one meal a day.

Meanwhile, the UN announced last night that its envoy to Burma, Ibrabim Gambari, has now been told he can meet Myanmar's senior general today, as he tries to persuade the junta to end the vicious crackdown.

Gambari flew to Myanmar's new jungle capital on Monday, waiting to convey international concern to the junta leader Than Shwe. Gambari has been informed "he will be able to meet the senior general, Than Shwe, on Tuesday," the U.N. associate spokesman Farhan Haq said in New York.Previously, it appeared the meeting would not take place as junta leaders ignored Mr Gambari's approaches.

Military authorities have continued to block internet and mobile phone texts, the channels which demonstrators had used to organise themselves and to send images of last week's violent crackdown around the world. Up to a dozen independent newspapers are reported to have stopped publishing.