Citizens Wait, Worry in Junta's Climate of Fear

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."

Hundreds of people, including monks, remain missing. Dissident groups say as many as 200 people were killed.

One 60-year-old man, who was a bystander during the protests but has not been arrested, said he spoke with a friend who spent five days in a detention center. The man estimated there were 3,000 people in the building, once a technical college in Insein Township, near the notorious Insein Prison. People were put in former lecture halls, hundreds in a room without toilets. Drinking water was scarce. "He said it was like a life in hell for five days," he said.

A Rangoon taxi driver told of a friend detained for 10 days. "He was given one egg to share with eight people, one bottle of water. No one was allowed to sleep. They had to sit, and if they lay down, they were hit."

Foreign journalists have been denied visas to enter the country, which the ruling generals call Myanmar. Those who do get in travel surreptitiously on a tourist visa. And they are watched. A foreigner eating lunch at an otherwise empty Thai restaurant soon found that she had company -- a man sat at a nearby table, ordering nothing and staring at the same page of a newspaper for the entire time it took to eat lunch. As she waited to pay her bill, he left.

The junta uses its newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, to blame foreign governments and media for inciting the protests, which erupted after the government doubled the price of fuel in August.

But instead of indignation at foreign governments, Burmese interviewed over the past week voiced anger only at the military junta. "All they know is stealing," seethed one taxi driver as he took a passenger on a circuitous route to the airport, slowing in front of the house of Tay Za, the owner of a local airline who is close to Senior Gen. Than Shwe, leader of the junta. The villa had an open garage, with two Ferraris inside, one red and one yellow. "They want money, money, money. And we have nothing," he said.

The driver keeps a notebook hidden under newspapers on his dashboard. In it he writes, in Japanese characters, how the government controls gasoline sales to siphon money for themselves. He wants to smuggle the notebook out of the country so foreign media can report on the system. The government limits official gas sales to two gallons a day. To buy more, drivers must purchase black-market gasoline -- obtained by sellers who pay kickbacks to government-appointed filling station managers -- at nearly double the official rate.

Another driver is even more pointed: "This government will never listen to the U.N. They don't care. We must fight back. One bomb and they [the military] would all run away."

Resistance continues, but for now it is subtle. At Shwedagon Pagoda, beneath a gleaming gold spire decorated with diamonds provided by the military government, a man guided a visitor to one of the many Buddha images, this one covered with strings of fresh flowers and offerings of fruit.

"This is where the people know to pray for the safety of our lady," he said quietly, referring to Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader who has been under house arrest or in prison for 12 of the past 18 years. The road to her home is now barricaded, with passersby blocked from walking or driving on it by rows of barbed wire, sandbags and several soldiers.

At a Rangoon art gallery, a saleswoman pulls out a painting from a back room. Called "Nine Novices," it shows nine young boys, their heads shaved and bodies clothed in the robes of novice monks. They are crawling on top of a statue of a lion, the symbol of the government.

"The artist wanted to paint nine monks, but he was scared," she explained. "So he painted novices. But they're still on the lion."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company