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People march toward a temple to protest against the military government in Yangon on Sept. 25.

Saffron struggle

Burma | Junta crackdown continues to show despite information blackout

Issue: "Mission: Impossible?," Oct. 13, 2007

After five weeks of demonstrations died, it was payback time in Rangoon. Military vehicles in one pre-dawn patrol warned residents over a loudspeaker: "We have photographs. We are going to make arrests!" So far, Burma's 45-year military junta has kept its word.

This month's pro-democracy protests are the first since Burmese challenged the junta in 1988. Adding new technology to their arsenal, the well-organized opposition broadcast their "Saffron Revolution" across the world. Video, photographs, and live web reports streamed out until the junta blocked internet and phone access.

Since then, it has been harder to glean new information from Burma. What is clear, however, is that the government's crackdown is continuing. Vendors and traffic were back on Rangoon's streets, but some Buddhist monks crammed the city's main train station, apparently ordered back to their villages. U.S. embassy officials visited 10-15 monasteries and found some chillingly empty. "Where are the monks? What was happened to them?" asked Shari Villarosa, the top American diplomat in Burma, in a press interview.

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Many are in detention, held in windowless conditions at Rangoon's main technology institute. The government says only 10 people died as security forces shot, beat, and tear-gassed protesters. Other estimates are much larger: Dissident groups say 200 died and 6,000 have been detained. For the most part, human-rights monitors shied away from hard figures as they sifted through numerous reports.

Little has improved for ordinary Burmese in the last 20 years. A 500 percent hike in fuel prices sparked the latest street demonstrations. The junta has grown more insular, resorting to its old hooliganism even as the world can now watch Burma closely. Last year, reportedly on the counsel of an astrologer, the generals moved the capital from Rangoon to the remote agricultural outpost of Naypyidaw.

It was "only a matter of time" before Burmese turned restless again, said David Mathieson, a Human Rights Watch consultant. He is based in Thailand because Burma does not allow rights monitors inside the country. "They're willing to use violence against their own people, and that's unsustainable in the long run. They can't keep doing this."

While many Burmese still suffer under the junta, some have found escape and fresh hope. This summer hundreds of ethnic Karen refugees, many survivors of the 1988 crackdown, settled in the United States. Most have spent the last two decades in Thai refugee camps living in bamboo huts and cooking outdoors.

Their arrival came after an agonized wait: Since 9/11 most refugees could not enter the United States because of a clause prohibiting material help to terrorists-in this case a Karen rebel group. Washington last year determined the interpretation to be too stringent for the Karen, and now thousands can settle in the United States.

Coming to America has been a leap, but many Burmese are happy for their new lives. Gretchen Schmidt, a World Relief coordinator helping to settle Karen in Illinois, said their factory job supervisors are so pleased with their hard work, they have jokingly asked for more refugees.

The Karen quickly organized families living in the same apartment building to share provisions such as dishes. Leaders devised a system in which each new immigrant family gets a meal from the last refugees who joined the community. They have also swelled a local Burmese congregation of about 10 to more than 100: About one-third of the Karen are Christians. "They've spent so long feeling useless that they're happy to be [working] and providing for their families," Schmidt told WORLD.

In the meantime, with their latest crackdown, Burma's leaders are losing some traditional allies. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, issued an unusually sharp rebuke against Burma, one of its member states. China, one of Burma's largest arms suppliers and investors, also surprisingly spoke out. After years of poorly working general sanctions, Washington installed targeted ones aimed particularly at the pocketbooks of Burma's leaders and their families.

In early October, some Karen joined an anti-junta protest outside the Chinese consulate in Chicago. Watching the fresh crackdown from afar has revived painful memories of 1988, and some wish they could help their countrymen, Schmidt said. A new start in America is a godsend for the new settlers, but back home, Burmese still have to fight the old brutal ways.

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