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Myanmar Military Junta Violently Cracks Down on Peaceful Protesters

An interview with those who have first-hand knowledge of the military crackdown in Myanmar (Burma) where the junta has shot at unarmed crowds and raided monasteries.
 
 
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In Burma, military forces have killed up to eight people, including five Buddhist monks. The military used batons, tear gas and live rounds in a violent crackdown on mass protests against the military junta. Hundreds of monks have been rounded up in raids on several monasteries. The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting in New York and called on the government to show restraint.

Hundreds of Burmese troops attempted to clear the streets of central Rangoon on Thursday, firing shots into the crowd as the military junta intensified its two-day crackdown on the most vocal popular uprising against its rule in nearly two decades.

Thursday's protests follow reports of overnight raids on six monasteries. According to witnesses, soldiers smashed windows and doors and beat the sleeping monks. Some escaped but as many as 500 monks were taken away in military trucks. Two members of the National League for Democracy, the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, were also arrested overnight. A hotel in which foreign journalists have been staying in Rangoon has also been surrounded and ransacked.

On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting in New York and called on the military junta to show restraint -- a call also made by China on Thursday. The United States and the European Union wanted the council to consider imposing sanctions, but the proposal was rejected by China. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he would dispatch a special envoy to Southeast Asia in hope the military junta would let him in.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In Burma, security forces used batons, tear gas and live rounds in a violent crackdown on mass protest against the military junta. Up to eight people have been killed, including five Buddhist monks. Hundreds of Burmese troops attempted to clear the streets of central Rangoon on Thursday. Soldiers fired shots into the crowd as the military junta intensified its two-day crackdown on the most vocal popular uprising against its rule in nearly two decades.

Thursday's protest followed reports of overnight raids on six monasteries. According to witnesses, soldiers smashed windows and doors and beat the sleeping monks. Some escaped, but as many as 500 monks were taken away in military trucks.

Two members of the National League for Democracy, the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, were also arrested overnight. A hotel in which foreign journalists have been staying in Rangoon has also been surrounded and ransacked.

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting in New York and called on the military junta to show restraint, a call also made by China on Thursday. The U.S. and European Union wanted the council to consider imposing sanctions, but the proposal was rejected by China. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he would dispatch a special envoy to Southeast Asia in the hope the military junta would let him in.

Jeremy Woodrum is the co-founder of the U.S. Campaign for Burma. He helped spearhead a successful nationwide boycott of the Burmese military government and organized delegations to visit refugee camps near the Burma-Thailand border. He joins us from Washington, D.C.

JEREMY WOODRUM: Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: We are also joined on the telephone by Bo Kyi, a Burmese human rights activist living on the Thailand-Burma [border]. Bo Kyi was a political prisoner in Burma for seven years. We are also joined on the phone by Ko Htike. He joins us from London, a Burmese-born blogger. He's in contact with about ten people inside Burma who send him information and photographs to post on his blog.

Let us begin with the blogger in Britain, with Ko Htike. Tell us what you understand is happening inside Burma right now.

KO HTIKE: Well, in fact, Burma right now, just in the moment, is really bad, you know. It looks like a totally war zone in the city. You know, they are shooting, and I got some photos that people are, you know, fell down on the street and bloodshed on the street. You know, it's a really bad situation right now. It's really bad.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And so far, the arrests, are they largely among the monks, or is it spreading to the general population, as well?

KO HTIKE: Yeah. No, this moment is not a [inaudible], you know. It's mixed with the monk, and, you know, like a [inaudible] on everything, you know. It's really bad, you know. I can obviously see that it's bad. I can describe everything. I'm seeing this, and I can even hear, you know, the shooting over the phone when I was calling to them. You know, it's really bad. I'm shaking, and I can't even think about what is going on inside. It's like a war zone in a city.

AMY GOODMAN: People can go to our website at democracynow.org, and you can see the photos that Ko Htike is putting on his website.

Jeremy Woodrum, what is the latest you are hearing as you speak to people inside Burma right now?

JEREMY WOODRUM: Well, it's quite similar. The regime is shooting at unarmed, peaceful demonstrators. They've raided two monasteries. And in one particular scary episode they raided one monastery, severely beat over 100 monks in the middle of the night and dragged them all away. Some of the neighbors who live next to the monastery went to visit this morning, which was last night here in the United States, and all they found was discarded monks' robes, blood and shattered glass all over the floors.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Jeremy, at the United Nations, apparently, China and India have -- China especially -- has sought to prevent any further condemnation by the U.N. Security Council on this. Your thoughts?

JEREMY WOODRUM: Yes. Yesterday the U.N. Security Council held an emergency briefing on Burma, which we were happy for, but then it was all for naught, because we later learned that China told the other countries of the council in advance that they would only attend the meeting if it was guaranteed that the U.N. Security Council wouldn't do anything. So you have a situation here where one country, China, has completely paralyzed the whole U.N. system and U.N. Security Council over Burma.

AMY GOODMAN: Bo Kyi, you are on the Thailand-Burma border. The Burmese regime imprisoned you for seven years. What do you see happening on the border now?

BO KYI: On the inner border, also the situation is really difficult to survive. Also, because of the situation, our border situation is reflective with the inside situation, because the Thailand government also [inaudible] security, because [inaudible] are really afraid all of these Burmese people flee to Thailand. Also there is all the ones who really, really dangerous for Thailand also. Now we are closely monitoring inside Burma situation. So now, like, according to our sources, at least likely over 100 people are dying, reportedly, so we cannot confirm [inaudible]. Already during these two days, over 1,000 people, including among students, also [inaudible] and supporters, were arrested.

Also, lately, those detainees are really difficult situation. They are not provided enough food. They are not provided medical care. They are not provided enough water for taking shower. Therefore, their situation is really dangerous. Even we really worry for their well-being and their lives.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Bo Kyi, in terms of the soldiers themselves, in other popular democracy movements like in the Philippines and even in Iran decades ago, some soldiers resisted the calls of the government to crack down on the population. Is there any indication that the soldiers -- there's discontent among any of the soldiers, in terms of this crackdown?

BO KYI: Yeah. Also, really, we heard some generals, they disagree to fire on the people. But some generals agree to fire on. Also lately, we see there a little bit [inaudible] among the soldiers, among the generals. Also, lately, there is very good thing. Also, if the soldiers who disagree with the [inaudible] set fire to the people, if they join to the [inaudible], so it is good. So, lately, we cannot see bloodshed anymore. But now, for the time being, it's really difficult to see the soldiers or generals who are joined to the public. But, really, many people or many soldiers are Buddhist in Burma, because, really, Burma is Buddhist country. Majority of the people are Buddhist. Now, really, they are killing the Buddhism. I think also, really, many soldiers are not satisfied with the decision by the generals. I think, really, sooner or later, soldiers will join to the people.

AMY GOODMAN: As we talk about the situation in Burma, what the regime there calls Myanmar, I want to turn to a new documentary called Shoot on Sight: The Ongoing Military Junta Offensive Against Civilians in Eastern Burma. It's produced by Burma Issues and the group called Witness.

NARRATOR: In November 2005, at the start of the dry season, the Burmese army launched a series of deadly offensives against ethnic [inaudible] areas in eastern Burma. These attacks have continued through the rainy season, displacing at least 20,000 people and leaving villages with no opportunity to tend their crops. The displaced live in makeshift camps in the forests and fields, suffering food shortages and disease. One in five children dies before their fifth birthday. This is a direct consequence of the action of the military government of Burma.

On the run, villagers live in constant fear and with no security. Discovery by the Burmese army can mean forced labor, forced relocation and even execution. Even if they do return to their villages, they risk stepping on the mines laid by the Burmese army. Today, almost three-quarters of a million live as refugees. A half-million more displaced in Burma, and a million may live as undocumented migrants in Thailand alone.

Politicians and civil society groups across Asia and the world are beginning to call for action for the United Nations Security Council and Burma's fellow Asian members. The people of Burma ask that their region in the world recognize that international action is needed to ensure an end to human rights abuses.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was produced by Witness with the group Burma Rights. Jeremy Woodrum, our word is that up to eight people have been killed, although the latest news of troops, as we're speaking, opening fire -- five of those eight, monks. Can you talk about what you feel has to happen now in this country? And give us context both from the documentary we just heard and back 20 years to 1988.

JEREMY WOODRUM: Sure, sure. Well, I think that most people in the United States have failed to grasp the severity of the situation inside Burma. In 1988, there was an uprising and a crackdown similar to what's happening now, in which hundreds of thousands of people came onto the streets, and the military regime opened fire and executed over 3,000 people.

But since that time, and especially in the last ten years, the military regime has destroyed 3,000 villages in eastern Burma, which was what the content in that documentary is about. And just to put that in context, that's twice as many villages as have been destroyed in Darfur. You have a million-and-a-half refugees fleeing out of the region into neighboring countries and Thailand. The regime has recruited more child soldiers than any other country in the world, and they're using forced labor and rape as weapons of war.

Unfortunately the United Nations Security Council just simply hasn't lifted a finger because of China. And I think as the Olympics approach, our organization is calling on individuals, organizations to boycott the Olympics. It's just unconscionable what they're getting away with there. I mean, when a country can destroy 3,000 villages -- and these are civilians I'm talking about here, who are fleeing a military regime -- and there be no consequences whatsoever because of one country, I think there's something seriously wrong with the international system.

At the same time, we're really appealing for Americans, and especially to progressives in the United States, to step forward right now during this crisis. The demonstrators in Burma are peaceful and nonviolent, and they are showing that there is an alternative to war as a way to bring about change in a country. And everyone who believes in that as an idea needs to step forward in support. They shouldn't have to carry the struggle on their own backs and lead it on their own. So if you believe in peace and you believe in nonviolence, please, take some time out of your day today to support our work. Visit our website and get involved.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I'd also like to ask Ko Htike in London, Burmese-born blogger, what has been the role of bloggers and the internet in getting word out on what's going on in Burma?

KO HTIKE: Well, yes, we are monitoring, you know, what is currently happening every single minute and every single hour. If anything happens, we're trying to upgrade for the news whatever we got and trying to upgrade news to the world. So, in this way, you know, the world will know what is going on and how cruel this military regime is instantly. And then maybe it could help, you know, not to kill all of people inside of Burma and it could help, you know, for the [inaudible] of Burma. This is what I want right now, because it's really bad, you know. So the bloggers are trying to promote this, or the military regime's cruel things, to the world. This is now what we are doing, and this is our duty right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Ko Htike, how do you reach people in Burma?

KO HTIKE: Yeah, through -- by internet. I got email, and then I sometimes call to their phone. Luckily, we still got internet and we still got telephone right now, so I can still catch up with them.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Jeremy Woodrum, 1988, finally, for context, what you fear today, based on '88, and where Aung San Suu Kyi is right now?

JEREMY WOODRUM: We fear a bloodbath. And I think that's beginning to happen. During the national uprising in 1988, which was very similar to this one, when the regime executed those thousands of people, it didn't simply play out over a week. I read in the New York Times a few weeks ago that they said that the demonstrations were winding down, which was completely incorrect. This is a momentous event and series of events inside Burma. This is going to play out over the next eight to nine months, at a minimum, and probably over the next two years. We're greatly concerned about major, major bloodshed inside Burma and a crackdown on nonviolent, peaceful protesters.

We understand that Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest as the only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize recipient in the world, 48 hours ago was transferred from her home to Insein Prison, which is the most notorious and dangerous prison in all of Burma. The regime apparently feared that she would break out of her house arrest, which is a sort of a ridiculous claim. But she is now in a prison. I seriously doubt she's receiving any sort of food or healthcare.

You know, one interesting thing about Aung San Suu Kyi, though, like Mandela and others, she's very humble, and she doesn't like to draw attention to herself. She always tries to draw attention to the efforts and the courage and the bravery of the people of Burma. I have no doubt if we were to be able to talk to her today, she would say, "Yes, please help me and focus on me, but do all that you can for the 55 million people of Burma."

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all very much for being with us. We will certainly continue to follow this desperate situation. Jeremy Woodrum, thanks for joining us from Washington, D.C., speaking from the Capitol Rotunda. He is co-founder of U.S. Campaign for Burma. Bo Kyi, joining us from the Thailand-Burma border, imprisoned for more than seven years by the military regime in Burma. And Ko Htike, the Burmese-born blogger.

On the issue of blogging, this from the Guardian: the Burmese junta last night desperately tried to shut down internet and telephone links to the outside world after a stream of blogs and mobile phone videos began capturing the dramatic events on the street. In the past 24 hours, observers monitoring the flow of information have noticed a marked downturn with the reported closure of cyber cafes and the disconnection of mobile telephones. Well, as we talk about holding the Burmese regime accountable, we're going to go to another part of the world about holding those in power accountable.

Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!

 
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