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Junta Attempts to Quell Protests in Myanmar

September 26, 2007 at 6:15 PM EST
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: The crackdown in Myanmar. And for the record, that’s the name for the country in the Burmese language. The British named it Burma, and opponents of the military government call it that, as well. We begin with a report on today’s violence by John Ray of Independent Television News.

JOHN RAY, ITV News Correspondent: The storm has finally broken over Burma, rising tensions erupting in volleys of gunfire and clouds of tear gas, as the army tried to retake the streets, and failed.

Again, led by thousands of monks, thousands more defied the government order to stay at home, an order backed by troops by the lorry load, who surrounded monasteries and pagodas where the campaigners had rallied. The stand-off was broken by riot police who charged the crowds, wielding batons and rifle butts, beating monks and nuns. But according to those who watched, the protestors are unbowed.

MARK CANNING, British Ambassador to Burma: The day comes with a show of force from the regime. There were barricades on the streets. There were several trucks of troops located downtown. And I think the question then was whether all these measures would intimidate people into not marching, as they had been for the last eight days, and I think the answer is that it did not.

JOHN RAY: There were demonstrations in several Burmese cities, but Rangoon saw by far the biggest. In the former capital, the army fired tear gas and warning shots over columns of monks trying to push their way past barricades sealing off the Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma’s holiest shrine.

Thousands headed for the Sule Pagoda in the city center, but were blocked, many monks dragged into the back of army trucks. Other marchers fanned out into the streets in the downtown area, where armed security forces attempted to disperse them.

The government’s official mouthpiece called this a crackdown on destructive elements.

BURMESE STATE TV ANNOUNCER: … chaos and anarchistic situation, like the 1988 disturbances.

JOHN RAY: They are Burma’s most powerful forces, the monks and the military, opposing but unequal, and neither seems ready to retreat.

Curfew extended, six killed

Aye Chan Naing
Democratic Voice of Burma
When the news came out about the death of the Buddhist monks on the street by the riot police and the military troops, we've been told that a lot more people even come out today because of the news of the killing.

JIM LEHRER: Ray Suarez takes the story from there.

RAY SUAREZ: And we go to two journalists and activists. Aye Chan Naing is director of the Democratic Voice of Burma, a group of exiled journalists based in Oslo, Norway. Than Lwin Htun is chief of the Burmese service of the Voice of America. He was a student leader in the 1988 protests.

Aye Chan Naing, what is the latest word that you're getting out of Burma, the situation on the streets of the big cities?

AYE CHAN NAING, Director, Democratic Voice of Burma: The latest news we're getting from Burma is that they have extended the curfew from 6:00 in the evening until 6:00 in the morning, and we're getting also the reports that six people have been killed today, including five Buddhist monks.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Than Lwin Htun, there are different numbers coming from the government, from independent journalists, from opposition sources. Is there any way to confirm how many have been injured, how many arrested, how many killed?

THAN LWIN HTUN: It's very difficult to confirm these figures for the moment, but (inaudible) eyewitnesses saying that they saw a lot of monks in blood-soaked robes and being dragged onto the government trucks, and there's been a lot of casualties during the day.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Aye Chan, as you mentioned, the government has been tightening the controls of people on the street. One law they passed prevents more than five people from gathering. Is there any sign that the government's going to try to enforce that law when the new day begins in a few hours' time in Burma?

AYE CHAN NAING: They did it already today, I mean, trying to stop the demonstration in Rangoon and in Mandalay and some other cities, but it looked like they didn't really manage. In fact, when the news came out about the death of the Buddhist monks on the street by the riot police and the military troops, we've been told that a lot more people even come out today because of the news of the killing. It's only escalate the more demonstration.

And we are expecting that there will be more demonstration in the few days ahead. It looked like the demonstration is not going to stop. Many demonstrators who we're talking to today, they say that they're not going to give up easily. So it's going to be more confrontation that we're going to see in the few days ahead.

Providing reliable information

Than Lwin Htun
Voice of America
We spoke to an organizer of the monks. And he pledged that although government imposed more restrictions, and although there are demonstrations being brutally suppressed today, tomorrow they would go out to the street again -- he pledged that.

RAY SUAREZ: Lwin, the government controls much of the communication that goes on inside the country. Do people in one part of Burma know what's going on in another part of Burma? Does the opposition have a way of speaking to each other in these different cities?

THAN LWIN HTUN: In a way that -- we, the foreign broadcast stations effectively conveying messages and what are called giving all of the information out to Burmese people. So they are relying so much now on our information from us, they may stick their ears to radio.

And then, of course, we have a kind of our own personal network of contacts. For example, like a few hours ago, we spoke to an organizer of the monks. And he pledged that although government imposed more restrictions, and although there are demonstrations being brutally suppressed today, tomorrow they would go out to the street again -- he pledged that.

RAY SUAREZ: So, to clarify, if you're in Mandalay and you want to know what's going on in Rangoon, you might tune in to Voice of America before you tune into a Burmese source of news inside the country?

THAN LWIN HTUN: Definitely, this is what I mean.

RAY SUAREZ: Aye Chan, what about the work of journalists? Is it possible to get information out? I know the government is cracking down on outside reporters, people from other countries trying to get in and get their pictures out. How you are getting information?

AYE CHAN NAING: We have people on the ground. We have 30 or 40 video journalists, radio journalists on the ground who are closely monitoring the whole situation. Of course, it's a very risky job that they're doing it, but, for example, this afternoon one of our cameramen managed to capture video footage of riot police beating the Buddhist monks, bringing them into the truck, military trucks.

And there were three or four military trucks standing nearby the Shwedagon Pagoda. We've seen quite clearly that the Buddhist monks were beaten by the riot police. Just because of this picture, we can easily discredit what the Burmese government are claiming that just a few numbers of people got injuries. It's totally obvious. It should be more than at least 50 people who got injury, and a lot more than 100 people who got arrested today, just by seeing one footage that we got today from Burma.

Keeping pictures from getting out

Aye Chan Naing
Democratic Voice of Burma
And the people inside Burma, in fact, are also trying every way they could to send information out to all these foreign broadcast radio stations. There's no way for government to stop information flow out. If they do, they're going to lose.

RAY SUAREZ: Does the government attempt, Aye Chan, to keep those pictures from getting out, and how are they trying?

AYE CHAN NAING: We can't say exactly, of course, in detail how we are trying to get the pictures out because of the security reasons, but, of course, the government tried as much as they could, tried to stop information out from Burma. I mean, that's what they have been doing in the past, for example, 19 years. But, in fact, I mean, they should understand that they're losing -- I mean, they're losing the battle.

And as Than Lwin Htun said, I mean, Voice of America is broadcasting back into Burma. We're doing it for many, many hours a day. BBC, Burmese Service, Radio Free Asia transmitting into Burma. Lots of people inside Burma are listening to all foreign news services. And the people inside Burma, in fact, are also trying every way they could to send information out to all these foreign broadcast radio stations.

There's no way for government to stop information flow out. If they do, they're going to lose.

RAY SUAREZ: Lwin, what about the actions against the protesters? Now that the government has started to use violence to retaliate, will the demonstrations continue, or will they start to shrink because people are afraid?

THAN LWIN HTUN: They seem to be that there has been big frustrations over the years in Burma, so this is the very first chance to show their frustrations out of that. And, also, the protest has been led by the monks. So monks are those especially revered in Burma, so a lot of people respect, show their respect.

And this is very unique that so monks are leading the demonstrations. People just follow the monks, and I feel that monks will not stop, so that means that people will follow the monks.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, gentlemen, thank you very much for joining us.

AYE CHAN NAING: Thank you.