The sense of vulnerability conveyed contrasts with the mood on the streets over a week ago. There was a feeling of euphoria and release as tens of thousands of people, led by young monks in crimson and saffron robes, marched in a protest the likes of which have not been seen in Burma in nearly 20 years. People who stood on the sides of the streets and on the balconies of nearby buildings clapped and cheered.
But then came the brutal crackdown, as Burma's military regime ordered heavily armed troops, riot police and a pro-government militia to crush the peaceful protests. Bullets and batons were used by the junta's troops to silence the monks and civilian protestors who had come out to express their rage on unbearable economic hardship and object to the regime's grip on power.
By the weekend, Rangoon had the appearance of an occupied city, with troops a visible presence close to the major pagodas, public buildings and street corners. It was enough for the junta to demonstrate that it had reclaimed the streets coincided with the visit of a United Nations envoy on an emergency mission.
Ibrahim Gambari, a Nigerian diplomat, spent four days in Burma, beginning Saturday, Sep. 29. He met Senior General Than Shwe, the junta's strongman, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader currently under house arrest, during his mission. Gambari was expected to convey the international outrage that followed the junta's bloody crackdown and to begin a ‘'constructive dialogue' with the military regime.
But it is clear that the junta, which has changed the country's name to Myanmar, is in no mood to give in. One clue was the view made known to the international community by Burma's foreign minister Nyan Win while Gambari was in his country. ‘'Normalcy has now returned to Myanmar,' Nyan Win said this week during his speech to the UN General Assembly.
‘'The situation would not have deteriorated had the initial protests of a small group of activists against the rise in fuel prices not been exploited by political opportunists,' he added, noting further that the security forces had shown ‘‘utmost restraint' when they intervened after ‘'the mob became unruly and provocative.'
Yet barely 24 hours after Gambari left Burma, another sinister side of the regime was on display, undermining claims of ‘'normalcy' and Burmese soldiers and riot police exercising ‘'restraint.'
For two consecutive days, the junta's forces mounted search-and-arrest missions, targeting scores of people living and working in and around areas where the protests were held, including the famous Shwedagon and Sule pagodas. Buddhist monks have not been spared, either.
‘'The crackdowns this week are more serious. They are going around with individual photographs of people they want to target,' Soe Aung, foreign affairs spokesman for the National Council of the Union of Burma, an umbrella body of Burmese political groups, told IPS correspondent Marwaan Macan-Markar in Bangkok. ‘'They are threatening many people who they suspect were involved in the protests.'
Even shopkeepers who run businesses along the roads where demonstrators marched have been threatened, Zin Linn, information director of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, the country's democratically-elected government forced into exile, told IPS. ‘'They are being threatened against speaking or talking about what they witnessed last week.'
This week's arrests follow the taking into custody of some 700 monks and civilians who were picked up from protest sites and, eyewitness said, included a 13-year-old boy who was standing near the eastern entrance of the Shwedagon pagoda. The monks were mostly taken in following night-time raids that troops launched on select monasteries.
But this week's arrests are following a different pattern, say eyewitnesses and sources in Rangoon that IPS spoke with. Those detained have been classified into three groups: the protestors and protest leaders; the people who supported the demonstrations, including the sections of the public who clapped as the monks marched by; and bystanders who were witnesses to the protests and the crackdown. Even a UN staff member was among those arrested in the raids.
Those hauled away since the first swoops began have been kept in Mingalardon, an area with a large military camp on the outskirts of Rangoon, and at the General Technology Institute (GTI), a vocational training center, in northern Rangoon.
On Thursday, there were some 20 soldiers and policemen guarding a large, newly-painted warehouse-like structure in the GTI. From a distance the large building appeared to have few windows and little ventilation. Sources say that some 1,700 detainees are being held in this confined environment, which is isolated from any houses and civilian life.
But such arrests -- particularly of monks -- have given rise to a reality for which the junta appears to have no answer. It has created a void in the ebb and flow of life in Rangoon. There are few monks on the streets performing an early morning ritual that would suggest normalcy here -- walking down streets in single file seeking alms to fill their bowls.
In one Rangoon house, it was common to feed nine monks every day. But since the bloody crackdown and the arrests, only one monk has resumed this ritual.
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Albion Monitor October
5, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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