Where are Burma’s Monks?

Nearly two weeks after barefoot monks first captured the world’s imagination by leading tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters through the streets of Rangoon, the ruling junta's brutal purge of clergy and activists appears to have cleared the streets of dissent and left monasteries strangely vacant. The only marchers on the capital's streets are pro-government propagandists holding signs that say "We Favor Stability" and "Violent Protesters Are Our Enemy."

But while exile and human rights groups are trying frantically to account for the dead and missing after junta leader Than Shwe unleashed the army on his own people last week, tremendous anger remains and there are questions over whether the junta remains united, especially in the light of much more widespread condemnation than Burma endured after 1988 protests ended with the death or disappearance of as many as 3,000 people.

“I think people are quite afraid at the moment, but they are really angry about what happened. It's an insult to their religion," said Aung Thu Nyien, a Thailand-based Burma analyst. "It's different from 1988 because people can see what is happening on TV and listen on the radio. I expect the protests could flare up again in the next one or two months."

Estimates of the dead range from 30 to a few hundred, although the numbers are generally unknown. One report in the UK's Daily Mail quoted Myanmar intelligence officer Hla Win, a defector who reportedly crossed over into Thailand, as saying he was given orders to kidnap hundreds of monks, execute them and dump their bodies in the jungle.

That report could not be immediately confirmed, but diplomats and human rights groups say some of Rangoon's monasteries are empty. "There is a significantly reduced number of monks on the streets," Shari Villarosa, the top US diplomat in Burma, told the Associated Press. "Where are the monks? What has happened to them?"

"You can see very little presence of security forces in the city at the moment as the military is trying to relieve the pressure, but soldiers in civilian clothes are going around town trying to block any protest," said Aung Thu Nyien. "The harassment is still going on. There are a lot of reports that the military is continuing to raid monasteries at night and still arresting NLD [National League of Democracy] leaders."

A movement that was fueled by video clips and photographs taken by citizen journalists that showcased the junta's ruthless brutality to the outside world is suddenly hard-pressed for information.

"Hundreds have been rounded up from in and around protest sites, and in virtually every township of Rangoon there are reports of persons having left their homes in the morning who have not come back at night," said the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission in a statement. "But many more have been taken directly from their houses and offices around the country, especially members of the National League for Democracy, lawyers and human rights defenders… For the most part, where they are being detained and what is likely to happen to them also remains unknown."

For Burma's generals, the violent suppression equals success. Speaking at the UN General Assembly in New York on Monday, Foreign Minister U Nyan Win said "political opportunists" took advantage of a five-fold spike in fuel prices in August to stir up unrest.

"The security personnel exercised utmost restraint, and they did not intervene for nearly a month," the foreign minister said. "However, when the mob became unruly and provocative, they were compelled to declare a curfew. Subsequently, when protesters ignored their warnings, they had to take action to restore the situation. Normalcy has now returned to Myanmar."

The comments came just as UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari met with Than Shwe in Burma. He also spoke with detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on two separate occasions, which diplomats said could be a good sign that he was conducting "shuttle diplomacy" between the two adversaries.

Gambari, who left Burma on Wednesday morning after a four-day trip, did not speak to reporters on Wednesday in Singapore. He is scheduled to brief UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on Friday in New York.

The diplomat's trip came as reports surfaced about a possible split between Than Shwe and General Maung Aye, his second in command.

Win Min, a military analyst based in Chiang Mai, said Than Shwe removed Maung Aye as chairman of the National Trade Council two months ago for unknown reasons. But though they may have disagreements, the generals appear to be unified in the need to stifle dissent, he said.

"The top generals are not totally split at the moment; they are just having a different opinion," Win Min said. "In the military if you disobey an order it's a very serious crime."

Others said that it was impossible to tell if a rift occurred, and that nothing has changed on the ground anyway.

"It's pointless speculation," said a Hong Kong-based human rights worker with many years experience in Burma. "Many so-called experts have wasted many years speculating about a possible rift in the ruling junta, and they are basically poking around in the dark."

In the days and weeks ahead, human rights and humanitarian groups will attempt to have access to detainees. But the most seasoned Burma watchers doubt an accurate tally of the dead and missing will ever be compiled.

"Even the numbers and circumstances involving deaths in 1988 remain obscure," the human rights worker said.

After Gambari reports to the secretary-general, the UN will continue to ramp up international pressure as momentum for more sanctions against the military junta gains strength. The UN Human Rights Council met on Tuesday and unanimously condemned Burma's regime.

"The government must give a full account for its actions during and after the protests, including precise and verifiable information on the number of people killed and injured, as well as the whereabouts and conditions of those who were arrested," said Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. "It must give humanitarian organizations full access to detainees, and facilitate international monitoring of its activities, particularly in light of recent allegations of night time raids and a general climate of intimidation. "

While it remains to be seen if Than Shwe will give an inch to the international community, the underlying conditions that led to the protests remain the same. Commodity prices are still rising, food is still sparse and the anger is still boiling below the surface.