October 26, 2007
Burma: No Turning Back
Editor's Note: Our contributor was in Rangoon on September 27th, the day that the Burmese military violently cracked down on unarmed democracy protesters. It was a day of historic defiance and dashed hopes. The troops opened fire twice, once at the beginning of the protests and once more at the end. He was the only Western journalist in the middle of the crowds throughout. Watch his dramatic video footage from that day and read his account below. The reporter wishes to remain anonymous for security reasons.
The Revolution That Almost Was...
I was filming on the streets of Rangoon as Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai was shot and lay dying. It was about 1:45 pm. The daily monsoon downpour had delayed the protest march by nearly an hour. Then the shooting started.
My camera was trained on a truckload of soldiers arriving in the far intersection when I noticed that someone was down. There was so much noise and confusion that I could only focus on one thing at a time. I zoomed in to the wounded man as he lay dying. Protesters later told me that a journalist had been shot. Even then, it didn't occur to me that the man on my tape was a colleague. I watched in horror over the next days, as CNN and the BBC ran images of him being killed, over and over again.
Across the street, a soldier fired into the crowd. It was much too close for comfort. I immediately took cover on another corner. As I composed my next frame, I was distracted by the metallic jangle of a soldier's machine gun as he came barreling toward me. He wore a manic, terrified expression under his helmet. My camera contained evidence of the atrocities, and he was intent on stopping me in my tracks. He grabbed me by the arm, but I broke free and escaped up a side street, into a crowd of pedestrians and fleeing protesters.
I was distracted by the metallic jangle of a soldier's machine gun as he came barreling toward me. My camera contained evidence of the atrocities, and he was intent on stopping me in my tracks.
I was drenched in sweat, a mixed result of fear and the monsoon heat. If I wasn't careful, plainclothes police could drag me into a doorway and bring me in for questioning. My greatest concern was the safety of my sources: I wanted no link to be made between them and me. To calm my nerves, I ducked into a shop to buy water. Before I could even unscrew the cap, the protesters regrouped in front of me.
Despite the first assault by the troops, they continued to march. It was an extraordinary testament to a people's struggle for freedom. Today was make or break, and we all knew it. My knees felt weak as I reluctantly rejoined the crowd. I was there to be a witness to their day.
The air was supercharged with excitement as the crowd swelled into the tens of thousands. It was the first time in nearly 20 years that the Burmese felt emboldened to protest the military dictatorship like this. The last time was in August, 1988, when at least 3,000 unarmed civilians were massacred in these and other streets around Burma. The military cremated bodies then, effectively removing any chance of arriving at the correct number of deaths. Some estimates put the number as high as 6,000.
I continued filming as we made our way toward Shwedagon Pagoda, the country's most revered Buddhist shrine. Troops with heavy artillery were stationed inside the pagoda grounds. Exactly as in 1988, the generals had brought their most hardened soldiers from Karen and Mon states, troops from the frontlines of border conflicts with ethnic minorities, the same troops that for decades have been accused of gang raping women, burning villages, enslaving the men. The Rangoon troops didn't want to open fire on their fellow citizens, and the generals knew it.
As we continued, plain clothes police in the crowd took my picture several times. I could always tell who they were, because they weren't chanting, and they weren't smiling.
I was relieved to meet a Swiss photojournalist, who advised me to stay in the middle of the crowd: "They will protect you," he said. I tried to keep an eye on him as we both worked, but he disappeared 45 minutes later. He is the last foreign journalist I saw that day.
The protesters were defiant, and still hopeful. "Our soldiers weren't trained to kill their people!" some chanted. Others demanded the release of political prisoners, and the beloved democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi. We all believed that this might be the day that democracy would prevail in Burma.
The crowd was full of smiles, with people offering me water and thanking me for being there with them. One of my sources, whom I hadn't seen in months, recognized me. We nearly hugged each other, but then thought better of it, and went our separate ways.
The protesters were defiant, and still hopeful. "Our soldiers weren't trained to kill their people!" some chanted. Others demanded the release of political prisoners, and the beloved democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi.
It was now about 4:30 in the afternoon. I was on the frontlines, filming the flag bearers, when the mood suddenly changed. The leaders held their hands up to halt the crowd: they'd received word of 10 military trucks around the corner, waiting to pounce.
An argument broke out among the flag bearers, some wanted to push forward, others to retreat. Their expressions belied what they already knew: that this might be their last living moment, their last decision before meeting a violent death. Some began to turn back in fear. One shouted (in Burmese): "Those who are prepared to die, move to the front!" The leaders huddled more closely together, gripped the flag, and pushed on.
Within seconds, the trucks came careening around the corner and at top speed toward us. My camera was in "pause" when this happened, but I turned it back on during the pell-mell confusion that ensued. People fled in every direction; I took refuge with hundreds of protesters in an apartment courtyard.
With nowhere left to go, people squeezed their way up stairwells. The stairwells were so packed that some climbed grates, trying to get to apartments on higher floors. We were cornered.
Gunshots erupted on the street. The weight of a hundred bodies pressed against my chest, and breathing was difficult in the stairwell. To stop was to be trampled. I didn't need to understand Burmese to know the substance of the frightened voices around me. A friend later translated: "Hurry, hurry! They're coming!" "One is wounded!" Quickly! There is no time!" "Pray for the courage that conquers death, the courage not to be afraid of dying!"
Then the gunshots began in the courtyard. We crouched lower, flinching at every shot. It was impossible to know whether they were shooting at people, or into the air to frighten us, but I was sure we'd be slaughtered in the stairwell.
Minutes later, the soldiers ordered us to evacuate. I had about four seconds, with people filing past, to hide my camera in my bag. I left it rolling.
We came out with our hands on our heads. The soldiers didn't know what to do with me and reluctantly let me walk out onto the street. The others were forced, at gunpoint, to sit in the courtyard with their hands on their heads.
I tried not to make eye contact with the soldiers, hoping to disappear into the neighborhood. As I emerged into the street, I saw that it was filled with soldiers, military lorries mounted with 50 caliber machine guns -- and piles of abandoned sandals.
I no longer felt even the modicum of protection I'd felt when I was part of the march. A group of five soldiers began running toward me. I ran the opposite direction before being cut off by two soldiers. At gunpoint, they forced me to sit on the ground. They sent for a commander who spoke a little English.
"Who are you?" he asked. "I'm a tourist. I love my mother. I want to go back to my hotel." After I refused to let them search my bag, they then forced me into a truck with a monk and two civilians.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"I'm a tourist. I love my mother. I want to go back to my hotel."
After I refused to let them search my bag, they forced me into a truck with a monk and two civilians. At our feet in the truck was the same fighting peacock flag I had been filming at the front of the protest. The New Light of Myanmar, the dictatorship's propaganda newspaper, would later say that troops had confiscated "weapons" from the protesters. This flag was among those weapons listed, as were marbles, nuts, English books and student ID cards. They also said there were knives, though I didn't see any.
During my 45 minutes in the truck, I noticed that the troops had forgotten me a little. At intervals, I quietly groped in my bag for my cameras, and their eject buttons. I managed to remove and conceal the videotapes in my underwear.
The monk and the two civilians sat expressionless, as if in shock. I wondered if they had seen their friends go down or if, in their minds' eye, they were quietly bracing themselves for interrogation and years of torture behind bars.
Two soldiers were keeping guard over a nearby culvert. They kept peering into it. I could only imagine that this was a good place for them to hide bodies until they could haul off potential witnesses. I didn't see any blood, or dead protesters, but if they were anywhere, I felt that they might be there, in the culvert.
With the tapes hidden, I got up and began to climb off the truck. "I'm going back home," I said. A soldier forced me back on the truck.
Eventually, two soldiers told me to leave. They never checked my bag, or even my ID. I felt lucky as I walked down the street, trying not to let the tapes slip down my pant legs. I hailed a taxi back to the hotel, got the tapes off my hands, and typed a preliminary version of this story to my contacts.
The Internet was cut off that night, a sleepless night for me as I imagined the terrible things that were happening behind closed doors to a people whose courage I will never forget.
More FRONTLINE/World Burma Coverage
Burma: State of Fear
Watch our report from October 2006, when FRONTLINE/World reporter Evan Williams travels undercover to Burma to expose the violence and repression carried out by Burma's government against its own people.
Burma: Voices of Dissent
Reporter Anuj Chopra was in Burma just before the protests turned into the largest demonstration against the ruling military regime in two decades. Read his eyewitness report and watch a short interview clip with a dissident inside the country.
Myanmar's Hidden AIDS Epidemic
FRONTLINE/World reporter Orlando de Guzman reports on Burma's AIDS crisis. He travels inside the country talking to doctors and health workers, one of whom explains that it is "the lack of freedom, the lack of scientific information, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, these very fundamental rights that have been denied the Burmese people, have made the spread of HIV more likely and more grave."
Burma: Can Sanctions Bring Democracy?
In 2004, FRONTLINE/World reporter Joan Bieder ventured inside Burma, a country which appears to be "moving backward," to report on the impact of U.S. economic sanctions against a military regime that stills holds Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest.