Horror in Burma

Photos courtesy of Irrawaddy.org: Blood-splattered floor of monastery

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Burma’s insular and isolated junta, frightened of the massive demonstrations occurring across the country, may be divided as to what course to take, despite Wednesday’s and Thursday’s shootings and raids that carted away Buddhist monks from monasteries in Rangoon. Hundreds of other people have been hauled off the streets by soldiers to an unknown fate.

Undeterred by the crackdown, on Thursday tens of thousands of protesters poured back into Rangoon's streets despite more tear gas and reports of soldiers firing directly into crowds. According to news reports from Burma’s state media, at least nine people are dead. Shots reportedly were fired in at least three areas of Rangoon as the standoff continued. One western resident said police were broadcasting warnings that "extreme action" could follow if crowds didn't disperse. Authorities sealed off both the Shwedagon and Sule Pagodas, the country's two holiest sites.

International condemnation has been swift, with governments worldwide calling for the junta to back off. Harrowing reports and video posted on web sites paint a picture of Rangoon as a budding killing field, with combat-clad soldiers firing on unarmed civilians, while state TV blames the crisis on the protesters. Monks have been less in evidence after dawn raids by soldiers hit monasteries.

A Japanese photojournalist was also reported killed.

Elite officers reportedly have been shaken by the monks' rebellion and are said to be seeking a solution, although there is considerable skepticism about how much actual division there is among the ruling command. “We've heard that other units from the border regions are moving to Rangoon to handle this. They are more battle-hardened and willing to use force,” a Western diplomat said. “My feeling is that reporting in the press and exile groups contains a lot of wishful thinking. Unless there are greater splits in the junta we don't know about, this regime doesn't care. They are willing to kill, and their golden ticket is the Chinese, who aren't going to push them.”

That said, the diplomat continued, “there could still be a surprise from splits in the military we don't know about. In 1988, it was very significant when the civil servants and government came out. We have known for some time that frustration among civil servants has grown after the move to (the new administrative capital) Napyidaw, which has been very hard on their families. So that could provide a potential spark.”

Win Min, a Burma military analyst, told Asia Sentinel that the government appears to be having a much harder time controlling security forces than the former dictator Ne Win did prior to 1988 and suggests that the military could withdraw in a few days if Than Shwe, the country’s senior leader, senses that soldiers are losing morale. With most of the soldiers practicing Buddhists, the violence against monks is taking a serious toll. The military was shocked when monks began to refuse alms from soldiers over recent days, analysts said. Donating to monks is a recognized way of making merit.

In 1988, when the military gunned down thousands of students and other protesters, the military had already effectively locked down the country, denying visas, shutting down telephone service and keeping the news media at bay. But in the current confrontation, while they have tried, pictures of protesters under attack have made it out of the country by cell phone and other means, giving the rest of the world an idea of the stark brutality as the government cracks down, and bringing condemnation from across the region and the world.

Than Shwe, Win Min said, remains the hardliner in the junta after sending his wife and family to Thailand, then to Singapore, according to the Nation newspaper in Bangkok. The Rangoon Bureau of special operation chief, Myint Swe and Rangoon Commander Hla Htay Win are responsible for the troops in Rangoon, but neither wants to shoot into the crowds, Win Min claims, but if Than Shwe orders them they may have no choice.

“Today and the day after tomorrow will be very crucial,” TinMin wrote. Compared to 1988, Ne Win had more battle-hardened and aggressive regional commanders to crack down and the complete loyalty of his subordinates. But Than Shwe has to struggle with his subordinates, especially the second man, Maung Aye.”

If the demonstrators can sustain their momentum for at least few more days, there is the risk that military morale will crumble. Than Shwe may not risk the chance that the army might turn away from the junta, making it likely that the junta will strike with devastating force as soon as possible.

Then the question will be how the leaders can maintain a united front.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the nation’s most popular figure, is likely to remain under house arrest although she was rumored to have been moved to the infamous Insein Prison, along with other leaders from the 1988 generation.

Virtually alone among Asian nations, Thailand’s junta leader Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, speaking on television Wednesday night, defended the Burmese government, saying no military force was used and that only police were deployed, although the Internet was awash with pictures of uniformed soldiers confronting the marchers.

“The actual tactics may vary from country to country,” Sonthi said. “I think there is no violence in the current situation. Everything is under control.

“On the reports that Buddhist monks were assaulted [during the dispersal of demonstrations], that cannot be concluded just from looking at the photos. I was informed that Burma uses dialogue to solve the problem, and senior Buddhist monks have helped negotiate to end the problem.”

Elements of Burma’s ruling junta are saying privately that the worsening crisis in Rangoon is provoking fear and misgiving among upper echelons of the nation’s military elite, who may refuse to shoot at monks, Asia Sentinel has been told. At least some of the ruling junta’s generals are reported to be “in shock” at the uprising of the nation’s revered clerics. With monks in play, the crisis is worse than the junta could have imagined and some military leaders are reportedly deeply worried that the situation may already be out of hand.

“It's horrible to see what happened yesterday. I can't believe they beat the monks terribly (one monk was beaten even to death). I was shocked. People were shocked and very angry at the use of violence and they said on the radios that they would continue marching. I think the United Nations Security Council should intervene quickly now. I am worried there will be more bloodshed today and tomorrow,” Win Min said.

With the press firmly sealed out, it was difficult to assess the situation on the ground Thursday. The military reported that one person was killed in Wednesday’s violence, although other reports were that at lest five and possibly as many as nine had been killed in Rangoon. Tear gas and shots were also reported in Mandalay.

One source insisted that changes have begun to be rumored at upper levels of the military but that it is almost impossible to tell what the early shifts mean. Certainly, the junta has committed a dramatic series of miscalculations, from the five-fold increases in fuel prices to sending thugs to beat both marchers and onlookers after the protests started on Aug. 18. The firing of shots in the monastery town of Pakoku, near Mandalay, was a particularly telling blunder that brought the monks into the streets.