For most people, running down the street while avoiding marching troops, clouds of tear gas, and randomly fired bursts of machine guns would hardly qualify as a vacation. While it wasn’t relaxing, my trip to Burma turned out to be a fascinating look at a society where the tension between the people and the policies of a repressive government finally boiled over. The end results were a week of triumphant protest and the brutal crackdown that immediately followed. I had been looking forward to going to Burma for weeks. It would be a chance to explore and understand a country that much of the world knew very little about. As it turned out, I got much more than I had bargained for. Ultimately, it proved to be an experience that I will never forget.
The adventure started in Rangoon, a city seemingly stuck in time. The streets leading from the airport to the city center were eerily empty. It was midday on the 27th, and all I saw were an occasional taxi and a few trucks full of troops flowing into the city alongside me. Earlier that morning the monasteries in Rangoon had been stormed by the police. The monks living there had been arrested, killed, or locked inside.
When I was dropped off downtown near Independence Monument there was a tension in the air that hung heavily over the scene. People were out on the streets, talking cautiously in small groups. Getting around on foot was made difficult by the thick loops of barbed wire that seemed to be everywhere.
The government’s strategy to stop the protests was easy to discern. They had secured the area around the Sule Pagoda, gathering all of the troops and trucks inside a barbed-wire perimeter established on the surrounding streets. There were troops stationed just outside the barbed wire on the major east-west streets, facing outwards towards the large groups of people that lined the streets. These citizens gathered around midday and stayed until late in the afternoon, chanting and singing songs. They seemed jubilant and defiant, excited about the prospect of serious and positive change in their lives. When a particular song had ended, the people at the front near the riot police would start clapping. The applause quickly flowed down the street, and soon a few thousand people were cheering. The amount of energy this created was enough to make my eyes water time and time again.
But the people were also tentative and afraid of having to stand up to their own government, one with a notorious history of brutally putting down any sort of protest. Suddenly, without warning, a few people in the front of the crowd would turn and start running. The people around me would do the same, and I joined them immediately, not wanting to take any chances. Sometimes it was a false alarm, but most of the time it was not. A few shots would go off, and within seconds everyone on the street would be heading frantically towards any sort of shelter they could find. During these instances it was impossible to know exactly what was happening. There were so many people fleeing for safety that I was at the mercy of the crowd, both in terms of speed and direction. There was no way to control where I was going. The situation transformed instantly from complete unity to total chaos. In a matter of seconds, the streets would become completely silent and empty. The troops would move down the street too gain more ground, and the people would slowly emerge and congregate once more.
No matter how carefully I tried to be, there seemed to be no way of totally avoiding the situation. It was common for me to turn the corner onto a main street, expecting to see a police barricade a few blocks up. The police moved so often, however, that sometimes it would literally be right in front of me, only about 220-30 feet away. There would be two rows of 15 troops standing shoulder to shoulder across the road. The troops in the front had shields and batons, and the ones behind held automatic rifles. The leader, normally talking on a walkie-talkie, would see me and make a quick motion with one arm for me to turn and walk in a different direction. I had this happen at least three or four times the first few days. When I rounded the corner I would freeze in my tracks and stare right at them. The sight was so fascinating that it was difficult to look away or make rational movements.
The troops themselves were a mix of all different ages. The younger ones were between about 18 and 23 years old and would smile when I walked by. The older ones were the most serious people I have ever seen. The had worn, leathery faces with dark skin and yellow, sunken eyes. During the first few days they were always alert and ready for action, but after a few days they seemed to tire of the relative monotony of standing around all day in the rain. It should also be noted that while some of the troops and police had metal shields, they had evidently run out, because a good amount of the troops were using round, wicker shields that looked like basket tops.
The progression over my first four days was one of increased police control and shrinking crowds. The police slowly worked their way outwards from Sule Pagoda, and as time went on they became more mobile and efficient, appearing on the scene minutes after a protest flared up. They also began to “scissor” groups of people, coming in from a few different sides to trap protestors. The gatherings became smaller, more spontaneous, and less frequent as the days went on. The more people that they arrested, the more the protests lacked leadership.
At around 1 p.m. on the 28th, my second day, there was a large congregation of people near Anawrahta and Pansodan Streets. I was about 200 feet back, watching the people gain confidence as they chanted aloud. All of the sudden, the troops at the end of the street started charging. I turned to run, but instead of running directly away, I turned down Pansodan and began running south with a group of about 15 people. I was clear of the troops and kept running south, but noticed that traffic was non-existent. As I looked over my shoulder I saw four huge trucks full of troops coming south down Pansodan, quickly gaining ground on us. I was almost to Maha Bandoola, the next street, where I could turn right and be safe. When I got within 50 feet, however, a whole swarm of troops came from right to left ahead of me, on the street that I was about to turn. About 15 of them ran left down the street in front of me. There was a man standing on the corner of Pansodan and Maha Bandoola. A group of three soldiers converged on him and immediately began beating him with their shields and batons. He fell quickly to the ground while trying to protect himself. This happened on the steps of a pharmacy where I had been drinking a bottle of water about 15 minutes before.
I watched in horror as a number of troops also turned up the street and headed directly for the group I was running with. Instinctively, everyone turned around and headed back up the street and away from the oncoming troops. As we did, the trucks that had been coming down the street from behind finally caught up with us and came to a quick stop. We froze, completely at the mercy of the troops.
The leader of the troops jumped down from the back of the truck with his weapon. It was a gun with a barrel that was unusually wide and short. He quickly took aim and fired a shot across the street at an old colonial building. The shot blew out a line of windows on the second floor with a huge crash. A few of the troops got off the truck and started approaching just as the troops from ahead came running at us. One soldier got about 10 feet away and pointed his gun directly at the man next to me. We all squatted down in anticipation of what would happen next. Just then, the leader who had blown out the window started yelling at us in an angry tone. He was really screaming. The guy next to me started to answer him. I realized afterwards that the whole time they were talking I was repeating “What are they saying?” aloud in English in complete panic. Of course, nobody had any idea what I was saying. After a brief exchange everyone stood up and started walking north. I followed and within minutes we were a few blocks clear of the action. I was shaking, and as I sat down on a bench it felt like my heart was going to implode.
Later in the day, I found myself a few blocks west of the corner of Shwe Bon Tha and Anawrahta. I had seen a few trucks parked there with troops standing around, and I instinctively turned down the sidewalks towards them. When I got too close, one of the troops motioned for me to go down one of the narrow side streets. I turned and walked thirty of forty feet before stopping to see what was going on. I watched as a group of troops across the street started sprinting up the same alley as me. They fired a few shots and pulled a middle-aged man out of an apartment building. Three troops held the man up and were dragging him back to one of the waiting trucks. The man did not resist; he had no chance of escaping. On the way back to the truck, however, two or three other troops relentlessly struck the man with their batons. The blows were mostly delivered to the neck and shoulder area. The man was crumbling under the onslaught. He had no chance of protecting himself and struggled to stay on his feet. When the troops finally got him to one of the trucks, they threw him inside and onto the ground. From there a different group of soldiers took turns beating him with the butt end of their rifles.
On Saturday the 29th, there were only a scattering of protests. Most of the barbed wire had been removed, and people could get almost anywhere they wanted. I was even able to walk directly into the area around Sule Pagoda that had been previously cordoned off. One protest that I witnessed, on the east side of Sule, demonstrated how much the military had things under control. A group of about thirty young men were gathered on a street corner, singing and chanting in unison, trying to get others on the street to join in. Things peaked when someone unveiled the red and golden peacock flag. Within six or seven minutes of things starting, three trucks pulled in from opposite directions. People went sprinting in all directions, and when I turned around for one last view, 10-12 riot police had overtaken the corner that the students had been standing on only moments before. Another group of riot police spread out across the street in perfect unity and began marching to restore order.
The force and efficiency that the military cracked down with cannot be underestimated. By Sunday the 30th the police had complete control and traffic was flowing on almost all of the streets. As I passed the main square in front of city hall there were still about 15 troop trucks parked in a row. Almost all of these large, green army trucks had pictures of Buddha on their windshields. In a country full of contradictions, this was perhaps the most glaring: soldiers brought in to fight against the leaders of the religion that they lived by.
author: Bart Copwell
Published in 2008 by Mizzima News in: Come Rain or Shine. A Personal account of Burma, the 2007 uprising and Cyclone Nargis. Compiled by Joseph Ball in conjunction with Mizzima News Agency. New Delhi/Chiang Mai.
Text reproduced by courtesy of Mizzima News. All rights reserved. Order the book here.
Photo: Wikipedia"Holiday" in Burma,