January 2nd, 2008
I am with a handful of Burmese monks in Mae Sot, a dusty border town in neighboring Thailand, where Burmese monks and thousands of citizens have fled in recent months. One of the monks, U Obasseh, spent three years in prison following the 1988 uprising. He vividly described the torture he received at the hands of military interrogators, who repeatedly boxed his ears. Obasseh now wears a hearing aid and showed me the scars from cigarette burns along his arms.
The monk also recalled a much more recent incident. In September 2007, military trucks drove into protesters near a Burmese high school as students were recessing for the day. Anxious to get at monks and protesters, troops fired into the crowd, which quickly became a melee of students, teachers, monks and civilians. Obasseh was beaten as he tried to drag the body of a dead student to the side of the road.
Though the military were seen dragging dead bodies away, and the numbers of dead cannot be corroborated, Human Rights Watch reports that the Tamwe School incident may easily have produced the highest casualty count of the crackdown.
Nineteen years later, and precious little has changed in Burma.
January 8th, 2008
I meet daily with three of the monks to map out elements of the story I would like to film. Everything I propose has to be carefully negotiated and planned; the monks know that their activities put them at risk of torture, prison, and death. It's a great source of stress for me as I figure out how to tell the story while also protecting my sources.
The three monks are part of six who formed the "steering committee" of the All Burma Monks Alliance in September 2007. They created the dissident group after the junta removed fuel subsidies in August 2007. Prices doubled overnight, and people could no longer afford to take the bus to work. The rising cost of food and other commodities quickly followed. That's when the first street protests began.
I am with a handful of Burmese monks in Mae Sot, a dusty border town in neighboring Thailand, where thousands of Burmese monks and citizens have fled in recent months.
After the price hikes, ordinary people, who traditionally support the monks with food, were turning up at temples begging for leftovers. As one of the monks in Mae Sot told me, "What we did last September, we did for all the people of Burma. Our religion and way of life were under attack."
Of the six monks on the junta's most wanted list, three stayed in Burma, two of whom were later imprisoned. A third monk disappeared and was feared dead, but is now in contact with the monks I am with in Mae Sot.
January 24th, 2008
To blend in, two of the monks here have disguised themselves as civilians; they've grown out their hair, exchanged their robes for jeans and t-shirts and are waiting for the right time to slip back into Burma. It's strange to sit with them. I know they are monks, but their transformation highlights the reality that they are hunted back in their country.
In contrast, U Pinya Zawta, the third monk in exile, has kept his saffron robes. Pinya Zawta comes from Maggin Monastery in Rangoon. The junta so feared the monastery's popularity and work (it also served as an AIDS hospice) that it was one of the first to be boarded up after the September protests.
Tomorrow I will meet U Kossida, a young monk who was on the front lines of last year's protests. At one point he pleaded with troops to lay down their weapons and cross over to their side. Now he lives under the protection of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in a monastery close to the Burmese border.
January 26th, 2008
I hear from several contacts inside Burma about dire conditions there since the crackdown. Fuel and commodity prices remain high, making life very difficult for the average person. "We're eating junk food," one source told me. "To save money, many of us are skipping one meal a day."
In Mae Sot, the two monks who have slipped across the border tell me that their imminent return to Burma is a first step to a planned resurgence in protests. The junta is nearing completion of a sham constitution that has taken 14 years to draft. Many in the opposition have either protested or been shut out of the process. It is widely believed that the junta will rig the results once the draft is put to a referendum vote.
But both monks and civilians tell me that they plan to protest during the referendum.
February 15th, 2008
Today, I filmed interviews with Pinya Zawta, who remains in hiding in a safe house in Mae Sot. Two of the monks with him refuse to be interviewed. They've been in hiding here since September. Both are high ranking in the dissident movement and prime targets for the Burmese authorities. They have been moving in and out of Burma to help build support and organize new protests. So far, they have been lucky -- U Gambira, one of their leaders, was captured shortly after the September protests and sentenced to life in prison.
Yesterday, Paho Manh Shah, Secretary General of the Karen National Union, a Burmese minority secessionist group, was assassinated in his home a few miles from here. A rival ethnic group that has been cooperating with the Burmese military is believed to have ordered the killing. The monks here tell me that they've received threatening calls on their cell phones but that they worry less about assassination. Their biggest fear is being abducted by Burmese agents and forcibly repatriated to Burma.
April 1st, 2008
I have learned that Burmese security forces have sent 100 soldiers to receive "monk training" on a military base outside of Rangoon.
These trainees are soldiers one month and monks the next. I am told that 100 soldiers is an unusually large number at one time but that it's regular practice for the junta to plant soldiers masquerading as monks in key monasteries throughout Burma.
April 14th, 2008 (email sent to FRONTLINE/World editors)
I am now in Rangoon -- so far safe and able to get some of what I came for. I am in my hotel's business center. Occasionally, the manager lingers over my shoulder, so I'm careful not to spend too much time here or visit any sensitive sites.
The mood in Rangoon is tense. The military are at major intersections. Just outside of town, on the road to Bago, my guides and I counted 27 military trucks parked by the side of the road, pointed in the direction of Rangoon. Needless to say, they were loaded with soldiers and machine guns. If protesters want to start up again, the military won't be caught off guard this time.
The referendum has been announced for May 10th. I've met with three contacts in a secret location. They have brought me messages from others, pacifists I'd interviewed before.
All I can say here is that some protesters aren't planning on going peacefully this time.
The beautiful 100-year-old trees that just a few days ago adorned the faded charm of old Rangoon, have either been felled or badly damaged by the storm.
May 4th, 2008
Cyclone Nargis hit with ferocity two days ago. I was safe in my hotel, but the damage around Rangoon is staggering -- hundreds of utility poles down in the streets, a mesh of wires that had once transported electricity and phone signals were destroyed. And the beautiful 100-year-old trees that just a few days ago adorned the faded charm of old Rangoon, were either felled or badly damaged by the storm.
I don't know how many people were wiped out in the country's south, but if it's this bad here, where people have adequate shelter, it must have been deadly in the country's wetlands and coastal areas. Most there live in corrugated metal huts.
I have been monitoring international news reports trying to figure out if I should head to the Delta region. So far I have yet to interview a single monk in the capital. They are particularly leery of cameras, despite the fact that I will film them all in silhouette. But I understand. Many have never met me before, and communication and logistical obstacles from the storm mean that I have even less time to win their trust. The plan changes every five minutes; people are tired, everyone is looking over their shoulder, and anything can happen here.