Wed 3 Oct 2007
Filed under: Inside Burma,News
Rangoon, Burma – Soldiers announced they were hunting pro-democracy protesters in Burma’s largest city Wednesday and the top U.S. diplomat in the country said she heard that military police were pulling people out of their homes during the night.
Military vehicles patrolled the streets before dawn with loudspeakers blaring, “We have photographs. We are going to make arrests!”
Shari Villarosa, the acting U.S. ambassador in Burma, said in a telephone interview that people in Rangoon were terrified.
“From what we understand, military police … are traveling around the city in the middle of the night, going into homes and picking up people,” she said.
The U.N.’s special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, declined to comment on his four-day mission to Burma, where the military junta last month crushed mass pro-democracy demonstrations led by the nation’s revered Buddhist monks.
Hundreds of monks and civilians were carted off to detention camps during protests last week. The government says 10 people were killed in the violence, but dissident groups put the death toll at up to 200. They say 6,000 people were detained.
Villarosa said embassy staff had gone to some monasteries in recent days and found them completely empty. Others were barricaded by the military and declared off-limits to outsiders.
“There is a significantly reduced number of monks on the streets. Where are the monks? What has happened to them?” she said. The Democratic Voice of Burma, a dissident radio station based in Norway, said authorities have released 90 of 400 monks detained in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state, during a midnight raid on monasteries on Sept. 25.
A semblance of normality returned to Rangoon after daybreak, with some shops opening and light traffic on roads.
However, “people are terrified, and the underlying forces of discontent have not been addressed,” Villarosa said. “People have been unhappy for a long time … Since the events of last week, there’s now the unhappiness combined with anger, and fear.”
Some people remained hopeful that democracy would come.
“I don’t believe the protests have been totally crushed,” said Kin, a 29-year-old language teacher in Rangoon, whose father and brother had joined a 1988 pro-democracy movement that ended in a crackdown in which at least 3,000 people were killed.
“There is hope, but we fear to hope,” she said. “We still dream of rearing our children in a country where everybody would have equal chances at opportunities.”
The military has ruled Burma since 1962, and the current junta came to power after snuffing out the 1988 pro-democracy movement. The generals called elections in 1990 but refused to give up power when Suu Kyi’s party won.
Simmering hatred for the military’s 45-year rule exploded in mid-August after the regime hiked fuel prices by as much as 500% – a crushing burden in this impoverished nation.
The marches soon ballooned into mass pro-democracy demonstrations led by the nation’s revered Buddhist monks.
The military smashed the protests on Sept. 26 and 27 with live ammunition and tear gas, and by beating up demonstrators.
Among those killed when troops opened fire on unarmed protesters in Rangoon last week was Japanese television cameraman Kenji Nagai of the APF news agency.
Nagai’s body was flown out of Burma on Wednesday to Tokyo.
Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said Japan, which is Burma’s biggest aid donor, was considering cutting back donations to protest Nagai’s death. Video broadcasts appeared to show a soldier shooting Nagai at point-blank range.
Gambari went to Burma on Saturday to convey the international community’s outrage at the junta’s actions. He also hoped to persuade the junta to take the people’s aspirations seriously.
He met junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe and his deputies and talked to detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi twice.
Gambari avoided the media in Singapore, where he arrived Tuesday night en route to New York. He was not expected to issue any statement before briefing U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday.
The junta has not commented on Gambari’s visit and the United Nations has only released photos of Gambari and a somber, haggard-looking Suu Kyi – who has spent nearly 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest – shaking hands during their meeting in a state guest house in Rangoon.
In Singapore, Gambari met with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc of which Burma is a member.
A Singapore government statement said Lee told Gambari that ASEAN “is fully behind his mission” to bring about “a political solution for national reconciliation and a peaceful transition to democracy.”