Citizens Wait, Worry in Junta's Climate of Fear

Monks in Mandalay, Burma's second-largest city, have returned to collecting alms each morning. But in Rangoon, also the scene of protests led by monks last month, few of them are visible.
Monks in Mandalay, Burma's second-largest city, have returned to collecting alms each morning. But in Rangoon, also the scene of protests led by monks last month, few of them are visible. (By Jill Drew -- The Washington Post)
By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

RANGOON, Burma, Oct. 23 -- She does not know if the police have her picture. But that uncertainty has not eased her fear.

Twice soldiers have entered this woman's Rangoon neighborhood. They came at night, with photos taken during pro-democracy demonstrations. "They look at everyone and then they take you," she said in a low voice, speaking on condition she not be identified. "I don't sleep."

The nighttime raids began last month, after Burma's military junta violently put down the country's largest protests in nearly 20 years, led by Buddhist monks. At least 10 people were killed in the crackdown, the government has acknowledged, and thousands were arrested. The arrests have continued even after an 8 p.m. curfew was lifted last week. This woman joined the protests, and now she waits to be taken next.

Those active in Burmese politics say the arrests have succeeded in capturing many key organizers of the protests while injecting new fear into people who have lived for more than 40 years under a military dictatorship known for its brutality.

As U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari jets across Asia, pressing for an active dialogue to bring democracy to Burma, people in the country's two largest cities, Rangoon and Mandalay, watch and wait. Many private homes, no matter how ramshackle, have satellite dishes to catch Western news. And though few people can afford their own computers or even their own telephones, logging in to international news sites is easy at Internet cafes, so many here have access to the latest information.

But they talk about it only in whispers, looking over their shoulders to see who might be listening. The government has blocked access to several Internet chat and e-mail sites, and people assume their phone conversations are not private, given that the government controls all the country's telecommunications.

"The people, we all feel so cramped up inside," said a 66-year-old man in Rangoon. "We cannot talk. We cannot do anything. This government, they are killers. They have guns, but the people have nothing." He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his eyes. "I'm sorry, but I don't have anyone to talk to about these things."

Life's daily rhythms have returned to Rangoon, but reminders of the violent crackdown linger. Piles of barbed wire lie at the entrance to Sule Pagoda, in the heart of downtown, where a Japanese cameraman was shot dead by a Burmese soldier as he photographed the protest. Although few uniformed police officers and soldiers were visible this past week, even fewer monks could be found on the streets or in the Buddhist pagodas. Many monks have fled and some remain in jail. Others are being confined to their monasteries, locals say.

Tourists have been staying away. Hotels are nearly empty. The driver of a three-wheeled cycle rickshaw, or trishaw, said he waited all day for one fare and got the equivalent of $3, not enough to feed his family.

Rangoon feels like a forgotten city. Although some of its Buddhist pagodas gleam with golden spires, many of its once-grand colonial-era buildings are crawling with mold and their facades are crumbling. Sidewalks in the busiest parts of town are impassable jumbles of broken concrete. The streets are pocked with holes. Decrepit buses and 30-year-old cars, their engines wheezing, weave across roadways in search of a smooth path. Electricity flickers on and off quite frequently.

"Fixing the roads is not on this government's list," said one man who studied botany in college but now works as a tour guide. "Buying guns is on their list."

In Mandalay, also a site of monk-led protests, the monks were more visible, with several walking to shops and restaurants in the mornings, collecting alms, rice and curries for their midday meals. "The monks who demonstrated are all gone," said one monk. He did not participate because he was afraid of the soldiers. "I want democracy," he said. He has a radio and listens to Voice of America, but only when he is alone. Too many plainclothes security officers, he said, "have put on the robes and it's not safe to talk."

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