For reasons of safety, Mr Quick is the only name we can reveal in this article, including our own. In our talk with him, we found this monk typical of the Burmese people [note: the regime in Burma uses the name Myanmar for the country, and Yangon for Rangoon, the country's capital]; brave, friendly, accommodating, generous (despite their poverty), gentle—and in desperate hope of change.
It was mid-September. We were on a day trip from Mandalay to a nearby ancient town; a beautiful, holy place, covered with scores of temples and pagodas. Climbing a very long set of stairs to a hilltop pagoda, we had bumped into this 30-year old monk, nicknamed Mr Quick on account of his being fleet of foot.
We stayed with him for two hours where we learned of his past, his monastery, his pupils, but mainly of his disgust at the military Junta that has governed Burma for over 40 years. His face showed caution and nerves when he spoke, but also anticipation. Constantly looking over his shoulder to check for people listening in, he spoke quietly, not spelling it out exactly, but informing us that something was going to happen in Burma soon and that the country's monks would be at the forefront. He constantly referenced the demonstrations of 1988.
The next day we heard that monks in Rangoon had begun their large-scale peaceful protests.
As two independent travelers touring South East Asia, we had decided to go to Burma to discover more about the country, its people, and to gain an understanding of daily life under the ruling military Junta. We were aware of the minor fuel price protests which took place in Rangoon in mid-August, but never thought these actions would lead to the mass call for freedom and democracy we witnessed.
Over the next couple of days, via limited internet and satellite television, we learned that protests were growing in size, that monks were being joined by civilians, and that demonstrations were spreading to other areas of the country. At this time the Junta was not taking any open action but was warning that the protests were considered unacceptable and there would be consequences.
Soon after, protests began in Mandalay—where we were. Monks were being joined by civilians and the demonstrations remained peaceful. The military were present on the streets but no intervention was being made.
By Sept. 25 it was common knowledge that the military had been deployed in Rangoon and that violence was being perpetrated against protesters. The same day, walking through downtown Mandalay, we witnessed a large demonstration. Monks and civilians walked through the street accompanied by clapping and cheering from onlookers keen to show their support. There was an overwhelming sense of positivity among the crowd, but an underlying sense of tension.
Soon enough the military sped through the downtown area in five trucks, young troops training machine guns out at the crowds on their way past. After the military reached the main body of the protest a shot was heard. Tear gas had been fired into the crowd and a large plume rose up that was visible for several blocks. People began to flee in every direction, on foot, by bicycle, by motorbike. The atmosphere had changed to one of fear and panic.
Shopkeepers began lock down their shop fronts, the tea shops emptied, and children playing in the alleyways were hastily taken inside. One family offered us refuge in their shop until the situation had calmed sufficiently for us to make our way back to our guesthouse. We left Mandalay shortly afterwards and continued to witness seemingly spontaneous protests involving monks and civilians in the small towns we passed through.
It is now well documented that from this point the Junta used military force to quash the protests and that many monks and civilians were arrested, detained, beaten and killed. Groups of five or more people were banned in public, access to the internet was cut, and curfews put in place overnight with a shoot-on-sight policy employed.
On the eleventh day after the beginning of the demonstrations, despite outrage from the international community, such force had been used that the protests were effectively over, along with any hopes of change.
Having stayed away from Rangoon for safety reasons, we returned at the beginning of October to spend a few days there before leaving the country. Initially it appeared that nothing had happened in the previous weeks; people walked the streets, tea shops were busy, street stalls doing a brisk business. The only obvious sign of any problems was a handful of roadblocks, and the heavy presence of soldiers brandishing weapons in the downtown area.
But the real control was beneath the surface. Most people in Burma are convinced that the streets are filled with Government spies who are constantly listening for anything incriminating. There is no doubt that these spies exist. But simply the possibility of them alone is enough to keep most people quiet and compliant. Conversations with locals are nervous and fuelled with stories of what has happened or what may yet come to pass.
They desperately want to speak out but know the penalties for doing so are extreme, swift and often quite irrational. This is key to the Junta's control over the people—there are no facts, no solid information, and no transparency. The Burmese live in a state of constant fear that we in outside world cannot even begin to understand.
Despite the dangers, some people were keen to talk with us, although the mood had changed since our encounter with Mr Quick. One shopkeeper spoke openly with us about the recent events. His eyes were sad and frightened and he expressed his anger about the Government's treatment of the monks. In a nation where monks are so highly revered, the brutal beatings and shootings meant that the Government had just done the unthinkable and the unbelievable. He hoped that the anger felt at these actions would galvanize Rangoon's residents to take to the streets again, that this would not be the end.
He stated that for many, this movement was considered their last chance for freedom from the current regime. If nothing was done now, if nothing was achieved by this show of bravery, how long would the Burmese people have to wait for change?
The Burmese cannot do this by themselves, and this has hit home more than ever following the recent brutality, he said. They have no weapons, and even if they did they are peaceful people who would most likely avoid violence even if it was the only option. What, he asked, can they do against the strength of 400,000 military personnel—a military that is willing to open fire on unarmed monks?
Further conversations with numerous retailers and taxi drivers revealed that the Burmese are aware of the international community's interest in their plight. They receive this information through limited use of the internet and satellite television. Initially the international media attention strengthened people's resolve to continue protesting in the knowledge that the Junta would not be able to easily get away with street massacres like those that occurred in 1988.
However, later, when the military started becoming more heavy-handed with protesters, people feared they would be recognized from news footage and hunted down. In this respect, the Junta had played the media to their benefit.
Despite the knowledge that the world is watching, many people expressed frustration at the lack of support from the outside world. There was a feeling of disappointment and anger that such attention was only now being focused on their nation, but that some 40 years had passed with minimal help or support.
The Burmese realise that the United Nations is now attempting to pressure the Junta, but they simply don't believe that the United Nations can help them. They desperately want support however, and know that they will not be able to gain freedom and democracy without the help of the outside world.
On our last day in Burma, we met a very intelligent, educated, and compassionate man. He was prepared to speak openly with us. He did not appear scared, but his expression was that of a tired and desperate individual. Like many other people that spoke to us, he desperately wanted change and he knew that this would only be achieved with help from outside Burma.
His feelings were that the best approach is through negotiation, where the Burmese people and the Junta can reach a peaceful, democratic solution. Typically of the members of the local community we spoke to, he believes that ousting the Junta from power by force would only cause further problems. It would simply force the military hardliners underground and start a descent into civil war and terrorist activity.
Like many others he wants a concerted effort to push for change, but ultimately wants the suffering of his fellow people to end. His parting words to us were, "Please tell others of what you have seen here, please help us."
Soon after, we sent this report to The Epoch Times.
This article was provided by two people travelling through Burma. They have asked for their names to be withheld, for fear that their own movements could be tracked retrospectively, endangering the people they spoke to.
As one of them put it: "It's a slim chance that anyone would get into trouble because of what we have written, but we don't want to risk it. See how the paranoia even seeps through to foreigners?"