Burmese brace for violence

Local community sees widespread signs that a brutal crackdown is imminent.

Members of Vancouver's Burmese community have told the Georgia Straight that their country could erupt in violence at any moment.

Htay Aung, chairperson for the Vancouver-based Burmese Student Democratic Organization, said that his contacts inside Burma (also known as Myanmar) had told him they were preparing to fight. Aung claimed that the government was cutting phone and Internet lines all over the country. He said the international media's interest in the demonstrations had forced the government to act with restraint, but if communication from Burma to the outside world were severed, the military would move against the demonstrators.

"Government troops are preparing to do something," Aung said. "They are preparing their troops for when they will shoot."

Vancouver resident Naw Seng once faced imprisonment in Burma for political activity but escaped and came to the west coast in 2004. He told the Straight that Burma's military junta would have no problem killing monks, who are now leading the nationwide demonstrations in Burma. "They will shoot at whoever is in the streets," he said. "They don't care."

Seng said the Burmese government, which calls itself the State Peace and Development Council, will not react to international pressure. He argued that curfews imposed around the country on September 25 were a clear sign that a crackdown was coming.

On September 26 shortly before the Straight went to press, CBC Radio reported that at least two Buddhist monks were killed and as many as 300 monks and activists had been arrested in Rangoon, the country's largest city, after police and security forces moved in on antigovernment protesters. CBC reporter Michael McAuliffe stated that monks were beaten up. Security forces fired shots and tear gas above the crowds, which had gathered near the city's famous Shwedagon Pagoda.

A September 25 Amnesty International media release claimed that "the high risk of a crackdown against the demonstrators makes it imperative for the international community to act." The release listed the protesters' demands as a reduction in commodity prices, the release of political prisoners, and national reconciliation.

Despite the government's best efforts, numerous Burmese Internet news sites have been reporting on the demonstrations. The Irrawaddy has been posting hourly updates since September 17. On September 25, it reported that Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's most prominent democracy advocate and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, had been moved from her home in Rangoon, where she was under house arrest, to the "notorious Insein prison".

On September 13, the Straight reported that members of Canada's Burmese community had met in Ottawa to push for the Canadian government's involvement in Burma. Liberal MP and foreign-affairs critic Ujjal Dosanjh (Vancouver South) told the Straight that Canada should take a leadership role in the issue of Burma. He said Canada should be using international institutions such as the United Nations to pressure Burma's government for change. "This has been a brutal regime, there is no question in my mind," he said. "Anything is possible with them."

Seng told the Straight that after any government crackdown the monks would still return to the streets the next day, adding that the people of Burma would follow. "The people want change," he said. "But there could be violence and people will die from that."

On Friday (September 28) at 5 p.m., the Burmese Student Democratic Organization will hold a candlelight vigil for the demonstrators in Burma at Robson Square. "We need to pray for them," Aung said.