Page last updated at 15:26 GMT, Wednesday, 3 October 2007 16:26 UK

Burmese play tense waiting game

Customers at a Rangoon tea shop share a newspaper on Wednesday
The mood is one of watching and waiting

The world is still trying to gauge the mood in Burma following the clampdown on pro-democracy demonstrations by the military regime.

Foreign media, including the BBC, are not allowed to report from Burma, but we have received this report from a correspondent in the main city of Rangoon.

To a casual observer, the Burmese city of Rangoon looks the same as it did before the pro-democracy marches of the past few weeks.

Although security levels are still high - military trucks often rumble past, and soldiers and riot police are still milling around at key locations - local people are trying to get on with their everyday lives as best they can.

Most of the shops and temples are now open, the street hawkers and beggars are back in place and people are once more spending their time travelling on overcrowded buses and sitting in the many tea shops to avoid the monsoon rain.

It is almost as if the events of the past week - the mounting anti-government protests by thousands of the city's Buddhist monks, followed by a bloody three-day crackdown - are just a distant memory.

But if you go down one of the city's back streets, or try to engage in a conversation with anyone, it immediately becomes apparent that the mood has changed.

People are frightened, but they're also really angry - angry that the junta dared to attack unarmed monks; angry that many of these monks are now locked up; and angry that once again, protests against this brutal government seem to have come to nothing.

Small-scale defiance

"I really want change," a middle-aged man whispered to me in a tea shop, "but they have guns and we don't, so they'll always win."

Despite the fear that pervades every part of this city, there remains an equal amount of defiance ... this is definitely not the end of the protests

The arrests are continuing, with people picked up under cover of nightfall and corralled into large, heavily guarded buildings on the outskirts of the city, and no information released to relatives.

Despite this, many people are determined not to give up and some are resorting to smaller-scale ways to defy the military.

One woman told me she was getting T-shirts printed with the inscription "no to guns". A man said he refused to make eye contact with any of the soldiers.

In case these arrests are not enough to stop Rangoon's citizens from re-starting the protests, the government is doing all it can to persuade - indeed compel - any dissenters to think twice.

The media is awash with accusations about lies in the foreign media - the BBC is particularly targeted - and soldiers are strictly enforcing a government-imposed curfew.

A man prays at Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon, Burma
Monasteries are still refusing to accept alms from the military
They are also preventing even small groups of men from gathering together.

One man said he was chatting to a group of about 20 friends on a street corner on Friday when troops suddenly began to shoot, and they all had to run for safety.

There are also persistent rumours, which the military have not denied, that a notoriously violent group of pro-government thugs was part of the force sent to quash the monks' protests last week.

This group is rumoured to be still around, helping to pick up those on the military's wanted list.

Fighting back

To many people in Burma, this situation seems all too familiar.

There are stark parallels with the last large-scale protests in 1988, when government troops and their henchmen brutally crushed pro-democracy protesters, imprisoning thousands.

Senior Gen Than Shwe (27 March 2007)
Gen Than Shwe heads the ruling junta and controls the army

On that occasion, an estimated 3,000 people were killed. The number of dead this time is much lower - eyewitnesses estimate about 40, although it is extremely hard to get accurate figures.

However many people here fear that the worst is yet to come.

And that is because, despite the fear that pervades every part of this city, there remains an equal amount of defiance.

Those with the courage to speak out say the Burmese are not just afraid but intensely angry, and that this is definitely not the end of the protests.

"It's unbelievable what the military has done," one woman said. "In 1988 they attacked civilians, and now they have attacked monks. It's the worst thing they could do."

"We cannot stop our fight now. We just have to think of other ways to go on protesting," she added.

Lying low

Behind closed doors, anti-government campaigners are almost certainly planning their next move.

One man said he thought that while the majority of protesters were currently lying low, because their leaders had been detained, they would soon be back.

And it appears that the monks have not given up either. Monasteries around the country are still refusing to accept alms from the military - a hugely symbolic act in such a devoutly Buddhist nation.

Sources have also told us that the detained monks are refusing to change out of their traditional robes, and many are on hunger strike.

In several pockets of Rangoon, people are even reportedly guarding monasteries against night-time government raids.

One man described how locals took it in turn to wait outside the monastery gates, to flash warning lights on to any military trucks coming near. Some are even said to be armed with handmade weapons, such as slingshots and arrows made from the spokes of bicycles.

Even now, there continue to be reports of small-scale demonstrations around the country.

It is obvious that despite their best efforts to stifle any opposition, the question Burma's ruling generals need to ask themselves is not if the anti-government protests will return, but when.


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