Thursday, September 27, 2007

Myanmar Update

Bloodshed in Burma as soldiers open fire

When the trucks carrying soldiers passed through the crowd, people applauded and shouted "hero!" in mockery. Seconds later a long burst of automatic gunfire sent them scrambling – thousands of men, women and children diving behind whatever cover they could find on a street in downtown Rangoon.

It was the moment Burma's military regime decided to crack down on the democracy protesters who have threatened its 19-year hold on power.

By the end of the day, two monks and a civilian were reported to have been killed and dozens injured by soldiers and armed police wielding batons and rifles.

One of the monks was beaten to death with rifle butts, witnesses said. The true death toll may be much higher.

Western leaders called for tough new sanctions on the regime to stop the bloodshed but with Burma's allies Russia and China able to veto any resolution by the United Nations Security Council, the chances of immediate action appear slim.

All day, gunfire crackled over Rangoon and tear gas hung over the city's holiest Buddhist sites. Despite the presence of soldiers outside the main monasteries, tens of thousands of monks and their supporters marched through the city. Tens of thousands more milled about on the crowded pavements offering tacit support.

Similar peaceful protests took place elsewhere in the country including Mandalay and Sittwe.

The Sule Pagoda in Rangoon, the scene of a massacre during similar demonstrations in 1988, was the main focus for yesterday's protests.

Soldiers armed with automatic weapons were lined up along the roads leading to the huge gold dome which sits at an intersection in the city centre. From a nearby rooftop long processions of protesters could be seen approaching from the north.

The red robes of the monks made a broad stripe down the middle of their mostly white-shirted supporters, walking at their side to offer symbolic protection against the bullets. Bystanders bowed down at the monks' feet.

The protesters passed under the noses of the soldiers guarding the pagoda.

A witness described how one monk stood alone in the open space before the troops and persuaded some followers to sit with him on the ground, in open contempt of the guns.

Others played cat and mouse, dashing from one side of the road to the other across the line of fire.

Later, another large group of protesters approached the pagoda from the south and advanced to within 30 yards of the soldiers.

No one here doubts that a massacre could happen at any moment. But in their anger, and their love for the monks, thousands of people have overcome all fear.

Earlier, men in police uniforms attempted to stifle the protest before it set off, as it has every day, from the Shwedagon Pagoda around noon.

As a column of monks appeared with flags, the security forces with their shields, batons and rifles moved in swiftly to set up a security cordon.

A group of women began wailing and praying. They were almost hysterical in their grief. They said they had seen two adolescent monks shot down just 20 yards away. All that could be seen at the spot were some red robes.

To the mounting distress of the women, the security forces seized a monk with a flag who was acting as a standard bearer and held him as a hostage to protect themselves from the angry crowd behind a flimsy barbed wire barricade.

Several more monks and supporters were bundled into trucks and driven away.

The women sought sanctuary inside a monastery but found that a group of soldiers appeared to have been billeted there overnight.

The men in their green overalls, standing alertly with their rifles in hand, had tears in their eyes too. Apparently they were also distressed by what had happened.

Outside, groups of monks and protesters stood beyond the security cordon singing their mantra: "We spread our love and kindness to everybody."

"Let us live and be without anger or violence," they sang on, and applause broke out.

The soldiers at the barricades levelled their rifles. Soon stones started to be thrown from the crowd at the security forces, who cocked their weapons and fixed their bayonets. Tear gas was fired and the crack of rifle fire rang out.

Like most of yesterday's shooting it appeared to have been directed into the air and the stand-off lasted for many hours. During a lull a man shouted at the troops: "We are all Buddhists! If you kill a monk you will suffer in hell!"

As loud thunder rolled around the cloudy sky, the protesters in the street and the young monks watching over the walls of their monasteries applauded.

There is no doubt that the people who braved the soldiers and their guns will be back on the streets today.

"We strive for our liberation," said one monk.