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Monks protest in Rangoon before troops moved in.

2007: A Holiday in Burma's Hell

Friday, December 28, 2007
Review of the Year
Kate Morison and David Butt, two Australian visitors to Phuket, found that being tourists took a different turn when they undertook a journey to Burma. Kate Morison reports

WE WENT to Burma for a holiday then stayed on when the shooting started, hoping to witness a revolution. It didn't happen. Now, we fear that perhaps it never will.

What we saw was the brutality of Burma's rulers and the suffering of the people. We walked with the monks, we cheered them on, and we felt the fear of the protestors.

Along the way, we witnessed at least one murder, the killing of a Japanese newsman, and maybe more. Yet we didn't want to leave Burma because we came to share the overwhelming desire for change.

Tourists are not supposed to do the things that we did. Before we went to Burma, we talked for a long time about whether we should go, fully aware of the sanctions.

Yet we wanted to see for ourselves, so we went. One month gave us time to talk to many Burmese about their hopes and dreams. And to see first-hand how the rulers there use their power to make sure nothing will change in a hurry.

Monks on the march

Why do thousands of monks take to the streets in protest? Because they are hungry. Inflation means the poor are being forced into starvation.

The price of rice suddenly increased by 15 percent recently, latest of many price rises, so the monks, who usually rely on gifts of food from the Buddhist population, found themselves receiving less and less food on their morning alms rounds.

Nothing makes even the most peaceful people take action faster than hunger. Rice now costs up to 2000 kyat (pronounced chat) or $2 Australian a kilo. This is about the same price as in Australia, in a country where the average income is $1 a day.

Last Monday (September 24) we were in Bagan, noted for its thousands of ancient temples. Our taxi driver received a telephone call to say the monks were on the march.

We found them near the Shwezigon Pagoda, 150 monks being protected on either side by a similar number of civillians. The taxi driver couldn't quite believe what he was seeing. Nor could the guide. In Burmese terms, Bagan is well-nourished town. ''There are never any protests around here,'' the guide told us. ''This is a quiet tourist area.''

Cameras can kill you

Pull out a camera in Burma and you put yourself in danger. Outside of the obvious tourist sites, cameras trigger a passionate reaction. On Thursday, we watched from the safety of our hotel as video journalist Kenji Nagai, 50, appeared to be gunned down mercilessly, with a camera
in his hand.

I was stunned. I had never seen gunfire. Even from the safety of the 19th floor, I could see the impact as the bullet hit him.

He lunged forward and fell to the ground. Then he rolled over, with his hands in the air. Seconds later, a cannister of teargas covered the scene, obscuring our view.

We saw similar passion work in reverse in Bagan when demonstators spotted a man they took to be an undercover spy.

The man, riding pillion on a motorcycle, pulled to a stop some distance from the monks and began taking photographs.

When they crowd saw the camera, they yelled as one, like football fans seeing a bad umpiring decision.

My friend David said later: ''I've never heard a crowd erupt with such a gutteral cry. They all ran towards the motorcycle, running and roaring.''

The motorcycle sped off. The protestors returned to the march. Later, safe in the Rangoon hotel, we were told not to go outside with a camera, even inside a bag, because of the danger.

Cameras tell stories. The generals don't want this story told.

Fear, and affection for the lady

We talked to many Burmese in the weeks before the monks took to the streets.

In Bhamo, a town way up north, a stranger started a conversation. He told us he wanted to write a letter about his country's agony to the BBC.

He wanted us to photograph it -- the camera again -- and take it out of the country.

We arranged to meet him the next day. He would give us the letter. He never arrived.

Informers and spies are on every street corner, we were told, over and over again. Our friend just vanished. We wondered what had happened.

Floating down the Irrawaddy River on a slow ferry, we encountered the generosity of a subjugated people. One young boy loaned us his transistor radio for the whole journey.

A group of women dressed me in a longyi (a Burmese sarong) and daubed thanakha (a combination of makeup and sunscreen) on my cheeks. The crowd laughed.

Everybody loves Aung San Suu Kyi, the imprisoned elected leader, and her father, also a Burmese hero, and told us so in whispers. But they would follow that with a ''Ssssh . . . .''

We heard it so many times in the backs of taxis, in restaurants, even at the airport. A conversation usually starts with ''I shouldn't be saying this . . .''

At demonstrations in Rangoon, some people would spit out the words ''Bastard army.'' Others would be less certain about international reaction.

Confused by propaganda, they would look at us with concern and ask: ''What do you think of what is happening today?''

We told them we thought the monks and protestors were extraordinarily brave and we wished them well.

My friend David told one woman: ''You can be sure that the rest of the world is aware of what's going on.''

In Rangoon, a man befriended us and wanted us to video his home to show the world how Burmese lived. We didn't get the chance.

When it came time to go, he placed a silver ring on my finger. He said: ''Never forget.''

Street kids and escape

A couple of Canadian tourists were making their way back to the safety of their hotel last Thursday as the soldiers descended on the crowd, banging their batons on shields and warning that the shooting was about to start.

The taxi driver wouldn't proceed beyond a safe point. The worst of the beatings were taking place directly outside the hotel.

Two ragged children who, like many, lived on the street, took the two tourists by the hand and guided them to a bridge from where the front entrance to the hotel could be reached safely.

The previous day, we had marched with the monks in Rangoon. It looked as though change was coming through peaceful protest. People were hopeful. There was an air of real optimism.

Little were we to know that the next day, the guns would begin firing.

We wondered how we would ever get out. In the end, it was simple: we called a taxi and nobody stopped us. Now we can only look back.

Almost all Burmese have an enduring faith in the beliefs that predate Buddhism. There are 37 Nat spirits that form a vital part of worship, with offerings to the Nat a regular part of daily life.

Over and over gain we were told that, no matter how bad the generals were, their time was limited.

One young woman, told that the soldiers were bashing monks, said simply: ''The Nat will get them.''

We figure the spirits may need a little help. We hope it comes soon.

The Generals Punish Rebel Families
By Alan Morison on Phuket

An American tourist has told of seeing pregnant women and children among the families of pro-democracy supporters, chained together and under heavy guard on a river ferry deep inside Burma.

The encounter indicates for the first time that a crackdown on dissidents now probably extends to their relatives and is being carried out in a thorough and ruthless fashion by the ruling military junta, even in remote parts of the country.

Tourist Scott Herbstman, 41, from New York, said: ''These were the families of people who had been arrested during the protests in Yangon. They were in fear for their lives.

''From the look on their faces and their frequent tears, it was clear that they believed they were travelling to almost certain death.''

One of the shackled women was nine months pregnant, he said. Another prisoner indicated through hand signals that she too was pregnant. Four chldren were among those chained, he added.

A two-year-old child and the wife of one young prisoner, whom he believed to be a democracy activist, accompanied the group, free of handcuffs.

Mr Herbstman, a boat builder who travels extensively in Asia, Africa and South America for six months each year, said: ''It was a nightmarish encounter. We couldn't help but feel sorry for these people.''

He and his Thai girlfriend, Jitnah Jintanaporn, were making a journey down virtually the entire length of the Irrawaddy, having begun their trip in the remote north, close to the source of the river.

Over three days and nights, sitting on a slow, crowded ferry, Mr Herbstman managed to ascertain details from the prisoners in spite of the constant presence of guards armed with machine guns.

''There were 10 men, 10 women and four boys in chains,'' he said. ''The youngest was about eight. Because there was no room on the boat they were placed next to us and we had to walk through the group whenever we went to the toilet.

''The prisoners were kept in pairs, handcuffed together. There was also a long chain with links of about an inch or an inch and a half that kept them all together and secure, using small padlocks.

''They would be taken to the toilet in pairs, escorted each time by three guys carrying machine guns. There were about 15 armed guards all told.''

Mr Herbstman said that because the Irrawaddy ferries are so slow and unreliable, tourists seldom use them.

''The guards were suprised to see us on the ferry,'' he said, ''but there was nothing they could do.''

The encounter too place on a stretch of the river between Pyay and Yangon. The prisoners boarded at Magwe and Mr Herbstman learned that the prisoners were bound for a detention centre in Tayet.

The pregnant woman was anticipating that after the boat docked, she would be left to give birth without medical aid, he said.

''I worked with the Red Cross in Rawanda in the prisons at the end of the war there,'' Mr Herbstman said. ''The incident on the boat seemed comparable in many ways. We pretty much anticipated these people were going to their deaths.''

He added that earlier, he had seen hundreds of monks marching in street protests in Bagan, a popular destination noted for its Buddhist temples, several days after soldiers and police violently quelled demonstrations in the main city, Yangon, last month.

Mr Herbstman was speaking by telephone from Bangkok in Thailand. He said that when he left Yangon five days ago, the streets of the former capital were desolate after the nightly 10pm curfew.

''There's a real feeling of fear,'' he said. Soldiers patrolled the deserted streets, he said, challenging rare curfew-breakers and repeating a loudspeaker message: ''We have your photos. We are coming for you.''

The military junta in Burma has put down a series of peaceful protests by monks and other citizens and admitted to rounding up at least 3000 pro-democracy supporters. Burma has been ruled by the generals since 1964.

Observers believe interrogations, violent beatings and probably deaths are taking place out of sight within Burma as its secretive leaders ensure their control is maintained.


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