Friday, February 22, 2008

How some protesters survived the crackdown in Burma

I sat on the floor of a safe house on the Thai-Burma border interviewing U Pan Cher, a leader of the protests in Burma.

U Pan Cher had given many speeches to onlookers during the protests, but the aftermath of a speech he gave on the afternoon of September 26th still moved him. I saw that tears were forming in U Pan Cher’s eyes as he described the scene that followed.

U PAN CHER: I'm very sad. I really respect those people over seventy or eighty who joined together with us. I feel very bad. These people were of the age that we look after. They should be able to rest in their homes. But they came out to be with us, giving their lives for the country. . .

U PAN CHER: When we reached to Minigon Pagoda in Alon Township of Rangoon, I got worried about our security -- a lot of old people and also young students were with us by then. I asked some people if they could find some bicycles to go and check on the situation up in front, for our safety. A woman about 25 or 30 years of age who had been cooking food by the side of the street volunteered. Leaving her food stand, she took her own bicycle.

As far as I know, she was the first person to get shot.

(His eyes filled with tears again).

When we reached to Chiminai* thousands of monks came together with us. The abbots from some monasteries had not let their monks participate on the 25th, but on the 26th these monks joined the protest. When we reached to Chiminai, I gave the same speech as before under the flyover. After that the people from the bridge -- the flyover -- came to join.

People from an audience who had been watching the protest from the roadside came to join the protest march. People came out of their homes to join us, bring whatever they had -- knives, and so on. But I explained to them, "We are doing non-violent action. So please no shouting slogans, no violence. Even no clapping. We will only reciting the metta sutta.”

JOTMAN: What time did you give the speech under a pedestrian overpass?

U PAN CHER: 3:30pm on 26 September. Around forty to fifty thousand people stood on the street.

When we tried to reach the Chinese embassy we were blocked again and again. So we couldn't reach it. So I talked with the monks. I said if we continue down this way, we will get shot down again. Our goal was Sule Pagoda. And we had to try to find the easiest way to reach it. When we reached the main road, we were blocked both ways: from the front and the back. That was about 4:15pm. When we got blocked, we sat down. We did a sitting strike for twenty minutes.

So the situation was getting worse. The troop in front of us look arrogant and threatening. So that was the situation: Both sides -- the protesters and the soldiers -- were moving toward confrontation. Some of the monks really wanted to move forward, to face whatever approached us. But I tried to reduce their temper. I said, "If we go ahead then we will get killed." And so we began doing politics. And I said "we should find another way. To put ourselves in a better situation." So after this a lot of people, including monks -- a majority of monks -- accepted my idea.

I myself turned around and walked back down the street. The forces in front of us were armed heavily and overwhelming in number. USDA troops. But behind us there were fewer soldiers, and these looked less menacing than the ones in front. I decided I wanted to negotiate with the commander in the back. So I approached the regiment commander and we spoke. A couple of minutes of discussions and negotiations followed. And then he accepted my request. “OK, the monks can leave: two at a time.” And after that I continued negotiating with the commander to release the townsfolk as well. After the monks, the people began to leave also, two by two. I made one final request to the commander. I said, “Please don't continue arresting the people. Please refrain from violence against anyone.” And he accepted.

But two-thirds of the people had made it out, and the others, about 40-50,000 were blocked again -- immediately -- by the military. And they cracked down on these people. They shot in the air, they shoot into the group, they beat people, they used catapults. I myself was hit by a catapult on the lip. And I was beaten on my right rib cage by a stick. Then a lot of people urged me to leave. By those people's suggestion, I escaped the killing field. That was about 5:30 on the evening of September 26.
Note: This is the fourth installment from my exclusive three-hour interview with U Pan Cher. To see all posted segments of our discussion, please click here. You may also be interested to read my other coverage of the Burma crisis, including interviews with escaped monks such as monks' protest leader Ashin Kovida.
* I'm not certain about the spelling of some Rangoon place names.

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