Burmese Refugees Recall How the Protests Evolved

SOURCE: | By Richard Furno, The Washington Post - October 26, 2007
By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 26, 2007

MAE SOT, Thailand, Oct. 25 -- The young Buddhist monk arrived here by boat last week from Burma, exhausted and disheveled, with no passport, the stubble of his hair dyed blond for a disguise, and wearing a traditional Burmese longyi wrap instead of his saffron-colored robe. He had to elude capture by running barefoot, racing two miles down a highway, and jumping into bushes when cars passed.

Burmese troops had been hunting Ashin Kovida for three weeks, since he helped lead pro-democracy protests in Burma's largest city, Rangoon. Ashin Kovida, 24, came to the safety of this mountain town on Thailand's western border, joining about 20 other refugees, many bringing with them new details of the ongoing crackdown in Burma, stories of dramatic escapes and fresh insights into the weeks of peaceful protests that prompted the military junta's violent response.

From the refugees' stories, a fuller picture is emerging of how a peaceful and apolitical movement by Burma's revered Buddhist monks morphed into the most serious challenge to the junta in two decades. After at least tacitly allowing the demonstrations to take place, the government launched its crackdown when a banned student group and the country's largest opposition party openly joined in and hoisted their banners.

The refugees also offered first-person accounts of seeing unarmed protesters shot and killed. These accounts could not be independently verified, and Burma, which the generals call Myanmar, remains largely closed to foreign journalists. The government has yet to give a full accounting of recent events.

The monks had planned for the demonstrations to last nine days, from Sept. 18 -- nine being a special number in Buddhist tradition. And they had planned for their protests to be peaceful, according to Ashin Kovida and another new refugee here, U Pan Cha, a businessman who managed security for the Rangoon demonstrations.

Pan Cha, who was seasoned in protest during Burma's student uprising in 1988, said in an interview here that when last month's protests began, he held a regular nightly meeting with a Rangoon government official to outline the next day's plans and guarantee security. Pan Cha said the official did not try to stop the demonstrations but told him only that the marches must remain peaceful.

Pan Cha's version of events also seemed to conform with widespread reports at the time that a battle-hardened Burmese army unit was moved into Rangoon to put down the protests. Pan Cha said that on the second day of the protests, he saw soldiers clapping as the procession passed their post. He said he learned that night that Senior Gen. Than Shwe, head of the junta, had issued an order to shoot the protesters but that the local official said he would not follow the order. On Sept. 26, Pan Cha said, he received word that a different army unit, from the 66th Division, which for years had battled ethnic minority rebels from Karen state, had been brought to Rangoon. That day, the violence began.

The government has officially confirmed that 10 people were killed in the crackdown against the demonstrations, which were organized by various groups, some loosely affiliated, in different Burmese cities. Pan Cha said he saw snipers shoot and kill six monks directly in front of him at the Shwedagon Pagoda on Sept. 26, and he saw others killed and hundreds beaten and dragged into trucks. "I cannot imagine how many people were hurt," he said. "Blood was like a stream of water" running down the pagoda road.

The Rangoon demonstrations were sparked by the government's violent reaction to a peaceful protest by monks in the central city of Pakokku. They were opposing a government-mandated fuel price increase in August that would be crippling to the poor. But when they began protesting in solidarity with the people, they were beaten by local officials; video of the beatings quickly appeared on the Internet. The monks and many laypeople were shocked by the government's actions.

Pan Cha said he was asked by a monk friend to help with security for planned protests. He met the monks Sept. 17, the day before their first protest, and planned strategy. The monks insisted there be no violence, and Pan Cha agreed.

On Sept. 18, the marches began. Thousands of monks emerged from Shwedagon Pagoda about 1 p.m., chanting a Buddhist mantra for peace and loving kindness. It was raining. Passersby stopped and prayed with the monks. Soon, many joined the march. Pan Cha asked them to join hands and walk outside the monks, forming a kind of protective chain.

Ashin Kovida was one of the march organizers. He said he knew the people would join the monks, so he routed the marches from Shwedagon Pagoda to Sule Pagoda -- the two most prominent temples in Rangoon -- because their busy streets meant that many people would see what was happening.

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