Fear on the streets of Yangon

People of Myanmar fearful after crackdown, but is the end in sight for the generals?

Freedom is something the people of Myanmar are realising they
cannot live without and are willing to strive for [GALLO/GETTY]


People on the streets of Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, have been speaking to Al Jazeera’s special correspondent about their fears, and their hopes, in the wake of last week’s crackdown by the ruling military.


Our correspondent has not been named in order to protect his identity.


He became agitated. Panic gripped his voice. “You don’t understand,” he said.


“If you make a mistake in your country you are arrested.


“In this country, if you make a mistake, they take your entire family – wife, parents, children, cousins – everyone. That is why I cannot speak to you.”


Myanmar protests

Military tightens grip on Yangon
• Protesters ‘not afraid to die’
Bloggers tell their story
Speaking out on Myanmar
The monks’ demands
Myanmar’s media in exile
Protest timeline
Video: On the ground in Yangon

We were sitting in a Yangon taxi – beaten, rusty and uncomfortable.


It had seen better days, a little like Myanmar.


People share cabs to save on price. I had asked if he would be prepared to give me an interview into my handycam and I would, of course, distort his face so he wouldn’t be recognised.


Up until then he was speaking English in measured tones about the crisis that is Myanmar today and what the generals had done wrong.


But the calmness disappeared when I suggested an interview.


‘Beware the spies’


He would have liked to help me, he explained, but he loved his family too much to put them in jeopardy. He was visibly relieved when I left the cab.


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People smile at me as a foreigner. One or two have got to know me as I have been around for a number of days – tea house owners, for example.


They have guessed I am not the average tourist filming the sights. But few engage in political debate with me.

“You just don’t know who’s listening,” someone explained.


Instead, they make comments as they glide past in the street or as you sit at a pavement eatery.


The type of comments you desperately need in order to tell the story of what is happening in this country.


“Spies,” many have said to me. “Be careful of the spies.”


No self-respecting military junta can survive without spies. Nor secret police.


In Myanmar, they are called Special Branch. A legacy, in name, of British rule in the former Burma.


Sinister qualities


Myanmar timeline

1988: Military crackdown on pro-democracy protests, estimated 3,000 killed


1989: Aung San Suu Kyi sentenced to house arrest for allegedly endangering the state


1990: NLD wins landslide in national election; military refuses to recognise result


1991: Suu Kyi awarded Nobel Peace Prize


1995: Suu Kyi freed, but movements restricted


1997: Myanmar admitted to Asean


2000: Suu Kyi sentenced to house arrest for defying travel restrictions


2002: Suu Kyi released following UN-facilitated secret talks with government


2003: Government unveils “road map” to democracy; Suu Kyi returned to house arrest after her convoy is attacked in north of country


2005: Government announces shift to new capital Naypidaw


2007: Nearly 3,000 prisoners released in amnesty to mark independence anniversary, but no key political figures freed

But in Myanmar they have perfected Special Branch to incorporate all the dark and sinister qualities of the old Savak in Iran, Stazi in East Germany, KGB in Russia and Mukhabarat in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Its tentacles are spread wide. Nothing, it seems, can escape its grasp.


The confidence of the military Junta can be judged by the apparent military relaxation on the streets of Yangon.


The army presence, so apparent in the last week, is no longer visible, but it has not disappeared.


Instead, its spies are hidden in the nooks and crannies of the city, in parks, the firestation, buildings under construction and in the holy pagodas, as if the monks are about to return.

Thousands of people are thought to have been arrested. No one knows how many have been killed.


In the tea houses of Yangon they talk of some having been released. They say they had to promise not to take part in any future protests and not to speak to foreign media.

With the fear of Special Branch, most observe the latter.

A taxi driver, after some prompting, speaks to me.


I filmed the back of his head as we passed the heavily guarded roadblocks on the street leading to the house of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the detained opposition leader.


“Are the protests finished?” I asked him.


He thought a little. “Not finished,” he replied: “We don’t have a leader, that is the problem. We don’t have weapons, we don’t have freedom.”


And freedom is something the people of Myanmar are realising they can’t live without and are prepared to strive for – even if it means death and arrest.


‘Very cruel’


“No surrender,” the man told me.


He was an old seaman who had been to Liverpool in England. “Nice city and good football team.”


“You like Yangon?” he asked me.


“Nice city, nice people, terrible government,” I replied. He laughed momentarily.


Then his expression became serious when I asked him where the monks were.


“They are all in prison,” he responded. “They killed the monks. They killed. They are very cruel. The worst in the world.”


He was talking about the military government. And he is not alone in those sentiments.


But when he said, “No surrender,” he spoke for a nation, because from all the comments I have heard in the last few days it is clear that these people know their fight will continue, more sacrifices will have to be made, more blood spilled.


Absolute control


But this round of bloodshed, and especially the action against the monks, may turn out to be a defining moment.


With the anger it has generated, history may show this to be the start of the beginning of the end for the generals.


When Ibrahim Gambari, the UN envoy, left Myanmar, he left behind a country in turmoil, the military in absolute control and a population in complete and utter fear.

But he also left a belief that the generals will soon start a dialogue.

Mark Channing, the British ambassador to Myanmar, said there was optimism that the events of the last week or so have left the generals with no choice but to engage.

But in a country which has endured 45 years of military rule, itis uncertain how meaningful that dialogue will be.


It is feared, certainly by some of the people in Yangon I have spoken to, that the generals of Myanmar will not give up power without a fight.


If that is the case, it would mean this poor country has not yet seen its last drop of blood spilled in pursuit of democracy.

Source: Al Jazeera


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