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Burma: Voices of Dissent

FRONTLINE/World reporter Evan Williams interviewed prominent Burmese dissident U Sein Win in 2006 for our broadcast story, "Burma: State of Fear." Watch a clip.

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Length: 1:19

Buddhist monks.

Monks are at the heart of Burmese cultural society in this devoutly Buddhist nation.

Editor's Note: Amid curfews and unconfirmed reports that hundreds of protesters have been killed and beaten in the military crackdown, the U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari arrived in Burma over the weekend to seek a diplomatic end to the violence. Burma, also known as Myanmar, has been ruled by a repressive military regime for the past 45 years. Rare protests erupted there more than a month ago when the government imposed massive price hikes on gasoline. Reporter Anuj Chopra was in Rangoon at the beginning of the unrest before a handful of small protests turned into the largest demonstration against the junta in two decades -- this time led not by students but by tens of thousands of Buddhist monks. Sources inside the country have told the BBC that some 4,000 monks have been rounded up in the last week and will be sent to prisons in the far north. In the following dispatch, Chopra describes the tension and violence on the streets of Rangoon, and talks with a pro-democracy leader in hiding about where this uprising, which some are calling the Burgundy Revolution, might lead. Chopra also meets with a family and hears firsthand about the day-to-day hardships facing regular Burmese.

I came to Burma in late August to investigate the growing protests sparked by government fuel price hikes -- just weeks before smaller protests swelled to massive demonstrations led by tens of thousands of monks.

In a religiously devout country where nearly 80 percent of the population is Buddhist, the monks hold tremendous sway over the Burmese people.

The junta's photographers were busy clicking pictures of the crowd. I was told that if the same people are seen in more than two protest rallies, they fall under the government's radar of suspicion.

A few days after I arrived, walking down Rangoon's busy Shwe Gon Daing street, I encountered a small but angry group of about 35 protesters chanting slogans against the government's decision to raise fuel prices. Security officials in plain clothes emerged on the scene quickly. Shops in the area rolled down their shutters. Journalists were ordered to stay on the other side of the road and refrain from taking pictures, and a waiting crowd watched in nervous anticipation.

The protesters were roughed up -- some of them punched in the face -- and then tossed into a waiting police truck. The small demonstration was crushed in a matter of minutes. It's not the army in uniforms beating up people, I noticed, but thugs probably hired by the junta. I wondered if the military regime feels it has less direct culpability that way.

I was watching from a distance like a curious bystander and didn't risk taking out my camera. But the junta's photographers were busy clicking pictures of the crowd. I was told they keep track of who is attending these protest rallies. If the same people are seen in more than two protest rallies, they fall under the government's radar of suspicion.

In these early weeks of the protest public participation is still conspicuously low. For days the government paper, The New Light of Myanmar, has been carrying ominous articles warning protesters that if they didn't cease and desist, they could be in jail for up to 20 years. Even the air coughs fear.

Bus passengers.

Living expenses rose by as much as 40 percent for Burmese laborers, when fuel hikes more than tripled the price of a bus ticket.

It's not easy interviewing the common man on the street in Burma. And I am aware I might jeopardize lives. The military junta has its eyes and ears everywhere -- informers in plain clothes are staked out around bus stops, cafes and other public places. A Burmese caught speaking out against the military can face long jail sentences. But I manage to meet someone who is willing to talk.

It is pitch dark and my Burmese friend flicks on his cigarette lighter as we cautiously ascend the stairs, sidling past crimson stains of tobacco spewed on landings and splashed on walls. On the fourth floor of this decrepit building, a door opens to smiling, candle-lit faces, welcoming us inside. I've been invited to dinner by a middle-class Burmese family -- whom I cannot name for their own safety. But here behind closed doors, we could talk freely.

My hosts are ethnic Karens. They were both cadres of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), an ethnic army fighting the Burmese army in southern Burma for decades. They met and fell in love in a Karen refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border nearly two decades ago. But after the birth of their first daughter, and wearied by daily bloodshed and gore, they escaped from the camp, and slipped into Rangoon where they have lived for the past 10 years.

In their sparsely furnished home, I sit around a low table with the family. The man works for a publishing company; he has a wife and three young daughters. There's been no electricity since morning. Power outages are common for eight hours or more everyday, the family tells me.

They have been struggling to cope with the recent spiraling price of commodities, but they've put together a feast for me. The table is laid with glasses of beer, and sumptuous platters of frog fries, fish fingers, and potato chips.

After the recent fuel price hikes, what's pinching the Burmese people the most, they tell me, is the steep rise in bus fares. There are an estimated 2.4 million bus commuters in Rangoon alone. Since mid-August, all are now forced to shell out up to three times more on transport.

"Democracy and all are lofty ideals," the hostess tells me, swatting a mosquito on her neck. "For the common man, the main concern is survival."

This family has been hit hard too. Their eldest daughter, 19, a law student, has stopped going to university after her expenditure on bus fares went up from 50 Kyat to 150 Kyat per day. She's opted for the university's distance learning program instead, which requires she go to university only a few times a month.

"Democracy and all are lofty ideals," the hostess tells me, swatting a mosquito on her neck. "For the common man, the main concern is survival."

But being a middle-class family, earning about 200,000 Kyat a month (about $154), they've still somehow managed to absorb the shock of sky rocketing prices. Worst hit are the labor class in Burma, the daily wage earners.

The family's housemaid lives in a satellite town on the outskirts of Rangoon. A widow who earns 1,000 Kyat (slightly less than $1) per day, she's barely able to make ends meet, let alone pay for her 10-year-old son's education. She's forced to come to downtown areas to work, the host tells me, but she can no longer afford the bus fares. "It used to cost her 300 Kyat per day before the hike," the host says. "Now, it costs her 600. She just cannot afford the ride."

New captial building.

The police department in Naypyidaw, Burma's extravagant new capital still under construction about 300 miles north of the old capital, Rangoon.

In April this year, inflation in Burma had reportedly reached a high of 60 percent. In October 2005, the junta increased prices of subsidized fuel by more than 800 percent. And again, without warning, on August 15 this year, the military junta announced another major fuel price rise, doubling the price of gasoline. These latest price increases are expected to worsen inflationary pressures, further exacerbating the economic woes of Burma's poorest. Prices of food commodities have gone up dramatically -- rice, eggs, and pork, all going beyond most people's means.

While Burma was once so productive that it was known as Asia's rice bowl, today nearly a third of Burmese are chronically malnourished or physically underdeveloped, according to the World Food Program. The per capita income in Burma is around $175, among the lowest in Asia -- even below neighboring Bangladesh. Ninety percent of the population lives at or below the poverty line, and Burmese society is plagued by chronic unemployment.

Given the extreme economic conditions and political repression, I wanted to understand why the protests, at that point, were still relatively small and sporadic. I learned that many activists have been arrested, including 13 prominent leaders of the '88 Generation. Many others are now on the run, with the junta hunting them down, raiding their homes and distributing photographs of "wanted" men and women. Citizens have been warned against providing them sanctuary. All Burmese families, especially in Rangoon, must report over night visitors to the authorities.

U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari is set to meet Burma's military leader General Than Shwe (pictured) on Tuesday, according to officials.

Through a Burmese friend who helped as a translator, I approach Su Su Nway -- a feisty 34-year-old labor activist who was sent to prison in October 2005 for more than seven months after reporting cases of forced labor to the U.N. Her phone is tapped, and her house is under constant surveillance. But my friend managed to get her to speak to me in person.

In an interview, she said that although she's a labor activist, she decided to lend herself to these protests after several '88 Generation leaders were arrested. Just hours after she talked to me in late August, Su Su Nway led a group of a few dozen protesters at a busy market near the university in Rangoon to demonstrate against the fuel prices. The crowd had just begun to chant slogans when junta thugs interrupted the march and began dragging the demonstrators into waiting trucks.

Su Su Nway managed to escape, put in a taxi by activists and chauffeured away to safety by a sympathetic driver. She's now in hiding, and in recent days has taken ill after she ran out of medication for her heart ailment.

I wanted to meet the man, whom I was told is now the interim leader of the '88 Generation since the recent arrest of Min Ko Naing, the group's charismatic leader. His replacement maintains a low profile, away from the junta and the media. He too is in hiding.

"In 1988," he retorts, "people put their faith in the students. There was much bloodshed, people sacrificed lives. But nothing happened. The military managed to cling on to power. This time, people are watching cautiously."

Late one evening in early September, we meet at a local hotel. He is elegantly dressed in a crisp white shirt and a loungyi -- the traditional sarong worn by Burmese men and women. On the run from the Burmese secret police since mid-August, the "1988 Generation" veteran (whose name can't be revealed for his own security) tells me how he has been struggling in recent weeks to stir ordinary Burmese into rebellion. In the wake of the brutal crackdown, he says he wants to do something to steal the junta's thunder. His cadres have been secretly liaising with the Buddhist monks to coax them into joining the protests, he tells me, and create what he sees as the potential for a "Burgundy Revolution."

"They're trying to hunt us down," he says of the junta, dipping a nugget of tempura in chili sauce. Twenty eight '88 Generation activists are now in hiding, living in very difficult conditions, he says.

I ask him why public participation in these early days of the protests have been so low despite the widespread sympathy for their cause. He smiles, almost as though he were expecting the question.

"In 1988," he retorts, "people put their faith in the students. There was much bloodshed, people sacrificed lives. But nothing happened. The military managed to cling on to power. This time, people are watching cautiously."

"There is a lot of pent up anger against the junta," he explains. "There will be an explosion of public anger someday. Where will the army generals run then?" he asks, before slipping away.

Anuj Chopra is a freelance journalist whose stories have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and The San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. Chopra lives close to Mumbai in India and is the 2005 recipient of the CNN Young Journalist Award in the print category.

Related Stories
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.

Getting Information out of Burma
Clark Boyd, PRI The World's technology correspondent, reports on how cell pones and the internet are increasingly helping Burma's pro-democracy activists gather and spread information about the recent protests, despite the ruling junta's best censorship efforts.


Alyce VRBA - LOS ANGELES, California
We often times appear to do a substantial amount of "talking"...but do we individually and collectively do enough positive actions? This is our 21st Century, let's be engaged, let's be proactive, let's move forward contructively together. Look what the Los Angeles Times is reporting, October 2...
Myanmar opposition to push for economic sanctions
The group's leaders warn foreign companies against doing business with the regime.
By Paul Watson
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
BANGKOK, Thailand -- Myanmar's opposition says it will push for tough economic sanctions that could include measures against U.S. and other foreign oil companies if the military regime fails to heed the latest calls for reform.

adam - san francisco, ca
Thanks for continuing to report on Burma. It's such an important, heartbreaking story. What kind of regime would kill Buddhist monks?

Regarding Burma, as with other oppressive regimes there are two key issues to deal with. Issues that never seem to be discussed. The first is a question. "Who on the outside is profiting from trade with the generals?" The silence is deafening and hypocritical. The second is from the lesson of South Africa. How can we guarantee the current tyrants they will not suffer revenge if they hand over power? Without that they will do anything, including killing the entire population to protect themselves.

FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
Excellent questions. You may want to screen our report from last year, "Burma: State of Fear," which raises questions about sanctions and whether tourists should visit Burma. China has a thriving trade with the generals. The U.S. is taking a hard look at Chevron oil's investment in the country.

michael plumer - detroit, MI
America owes this nation [of Burma]. We were involved in the heroin trade. It was part of the CIA's "golden triangle" back in the days of the Vietnam war.