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Revolutionary Impulses, Repression in Myanmar

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Revolutionary Impulses, Repression in Myanmar


Revolutionary Impulses, Repression in Myanmar

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Foreign journalists, as we said, are banned from reporting from Myanmar but NPR's Michael Sullivan went in as a tourist last week. He's back now in Bangkok and here is his postcard from his visit.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Myanmar's military government has been accused of being many things - subtle isn't one of them.

(Soundbite of music)

SULLIVAN: State-run television starts its broadcast day with a stark reminder of who's in charge. North-Korean-like video smartly turned out troops marching briskly across the screen, automatic weapons on their shoulders. It's not like anyone really needs a reminder that people here are terrified of their government and they have reason to be.

Here's a story I heard a couple of times in Yangon, one that sums up the military's attitude towards the people. Most cities in this part of the world are choked with motorcycles, but not Yangon.

Five years ago, it seems, a general was sitting in the back of his Mercedes when it was overtaken then dinged by a passing motorcycle. It was an accident according to most but the general saw it differently as an attempt on his life.

After that, motorcycles were banned from Myanmar's biggest city, depriving the people of one of their cheapest and most efficient forms of transportation. We don't like it but we can't do anything about it, a disgusted resident told me. If you say anything against the military, you just disappear, the man said, and nobody knows where to or for how long.

(Soundbite of truck)

SULLIVAN: Few motorcycles but plenty of logging trucks can be seen lumbering through the city, stacked high with hardwood destined for export.

(Soundbite of truck)

SULLIVAN: Myanmar is rich in natural resources - timber, minerals and especially natural gas - and almost all of the profit goes into the pockets of the generals. They are incredibly wealthy. It's the people who are desperately poor.

(Soundbite of crowd)

SULLIVAN: Most got a little poorer last month when the government doubled the price of gasoline and diesel. Here in one of Yangon's main markets, increased transportation costs means prices for many basics have gone up too. The public's anger over the price increases helped fuel the recent protests.

(Soundbite of plow)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Myanmar's poverty is even more striking in the countryside, a few hundred miles to the north where people still use oxen to pull plows and carts used for basic transportation, where electricity and health care are virtually nonexistent.

Life is a little easier in the tourist towns around the temples of Bagan, the country's largest tourist attraction, but not much. Here, too, the people's hatred for and fear of the military is strong.

We tried to get rid of them in 1988, one man says, but it didn't work. And the situation now, he says, isn't much different. All we have is our hands, and the military has guns.

(Soundbite of singing)

SULLIVAN: What the military doesn't have is moral authority. These people do -Buddhist monks marching here in Myanmar's second city, Mandalay, on Monday.

(Soundbite of singing)

SULLIVAN: Monks like these march peacefully all over the country for much of the past two weeks. And their presence in the thousands emboldened many ordinary people too.

(Soundbite of chanting)

SULLIVAN: People lined the streets in Mandalay to watch the monks passed, offering them bottled water and words of encouragement. Plainclothes police were everywhere too, discouraging any thought I might have had about speaking with people.

But I made eye contact briefly with one man as I hurried past his shop and about a minute later he caught up with me, leaned in and whispered a single word. Revolution, he said in perfect English, and then he was gone.

It was such an act of defiance, triumph even that I started to believe maybe things might change. The next morning, another man I'd met and trusted brought me back with a jolt.

Wait, he said. The generals know what they're doing. They're just taking their time infiltrating the monks, identifying the ringleaders and then they'll act. The generals liked their power, this man said, and they know what to do to keep it.

The crackdown started the next day.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Bangkok.

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