"I hear reports of soldiers in the streets and helicopters flying over the city. The police are everywhere. There is a curfew from 10 p.m. to four in the morning. Dissenters are immediately and brutally beaten. Very few people now have the courage to go into the streets." This is the scene is Yangon, Myanmar as described by Nathaniel, a college-aged Burmese expatriate who insists on a pseudonym to protect his family.
These nightmarish scenes and the despair they breed in the expatriate community are a far cry from the Yangon of a month ago. In August, Buddhist monks conducting peaceful protests against a 400 percent increase in commodity prices were arrested and beaten. The attack on the spiritual and educational leaders of the country sparked national outrage, and by mid-September over 100,000 citizens took to the streets.
"Everyone was buoyant," Nathaniel recalls. "My friends inside Burma [the former name of the country] and here, we all thought this was the beginning of change."
Briefly, it did indeed seem that Myanmar's military junta, who has ruled since 1962, was on the verge of collapse. Aung Sun Suu Kyi, a detained popular political figure and face of the Burmese democracy movement, made her first public appearance in over a year, praying for the monks and demanding political reform.
But then, on Sept. 27, despite the presence of the revered monks, the pacific nature of the demonstrations, and pres sure from the United Nations, with international media watching soldiers opened fire on the crowds, touching off a frantic stampede and killing dozens.
Then came the blackout.
After that day, Nathaniel and his friends in the U.S. lost all contact with their families. Myanmar's two internet service providers in the country, both of which are controlled by the government, were shut down, the borders were closed, and all international phone lines were disconnected. For Nathaniel, it was a nightmare. For six days they had no way of knowing if their families and friends were safe, or even alive.
Meanwhile, while Nathaniel was on the outside looking in, Mitchell (another pseudonym), a U.S. citizen who has spent the last several years in Burma studying culture and religion, was frantically trying to get out. Mitchell began packing after hearing official statements blaming "foreign influences" for the unrest, and when a friend told him that a government official was coming to detain him, Mitchell fled. "I flew to three different cities, begged people and paid them a lot of money, until eventually I got to Thailand," he says.
For Burton Levin, U.S. ambassador to Myanmar from 1987 to 1990, the demonstrations and ensuing violence are all too familiar. Levin. while ambassador, witnessed 1988's massive student-led democracy protests that threatened to topple the regime before being violently suppressed. "Soldiers advanced on the crowd and started shooting right in front of the U.S. embassy. I watched people dying," Levin recalls. "It was bloodier and on a larger scale than in Tiananmen Square, but nobody heard about it because there was no newspaper or television coverage."
The 2007 protests, despite the military's best efforts, will not occur in an information vacuum. After nearly a week of waiting, Nathaniel was able to connect with a friend on an internet chat room and verify that his family and friends had not been harmed in the initial violence, but that has hardly assuaged his worries. "The violence is still going on, it's just not going on in the streets," he says. "People sit in their houses at night terrified that the police are coming to arrest them. The atrocities are being committed in the detention centers."
Mitchell, whose friends are in rural Myanmar, has been unable to contact them. "Ninety nine percent of the news coming out is from Yangon; nobody knows anything about what is going on in the countryside," he says. "In the cities, people are turning on each other. People are denouncing others as having been in the protests because they are afraid that they themselves will be denounced."
Nathaniel, Mitchell and Levin agree that the best hope for the future is a fissure in the military leadership, but they are all skeptical of the possibility.
"These are the most nationalistic, xenophobic and poorly-educated people I've ever come across in all my years in the Foreign Service," Levin says, describing the junta. "The glimmer of hope is that some of the younger, more enlightened officers will see the shame in beating monks and stop all this, but I have no hard basis for thinking that will happen."
[Activism] Seattle's Burmese community will host an interfaith prayer service on Sat., Oct. 20 from 2 to 4 p.m. at University Baptist Church, 4554 12th Ave. NE. Map Info: http://students.washington.edu/burma