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Last Updated: Monday, 8 October 2007, 11:00 GMT 12:00 UK
Shock, fear and courage in Rangoon
The BBC News website's Kate McGeown has just returned from visiting Burma's main city, Rangoon, in the aftermath of a crackdown against anti-government protests.

Monks praying at Shwedagon Pagoda
People appear frightened, but not defeated
As my plane touched down in rain-soaked Rangoon, I was unsure of what to expect.

The military government had just done the unthinkable: opened fire at a protest led by unarmed monks, and no-one was quite sure what they would do next.

I arrived into a city in shock. "No-one can believe what has just happened here," an American woman said to me, soon after I arrived at my hotel.

To add to the sense of uncertainty, I was also unsure how many locals would actually want to talk to me.

Foreign media, including the BBC, is banned from reporting in Burma, and I was aware that anyone I spoke to would face a stiff jail term if military intelligence officials discovered what I was doing.

Some people just stared at me with sad, frightened eyes. But I found that others were willing to talk, despite the risks, because they wanted to let the world know what they were going through.

The overriding impression these people gave me was that they were very frightened about the future, but they were also determined to push for change.

Deserted temples

I had last visited Rangoon in mid-2006, and in some ways not much has altered since then.

Other than the brand new airport, there has been no improvement to the badly decaying buildings or the potholed roads.

Temple in Rangoon
People are staying away from religious sites in Rangoon

There are still shocking levels of poverty in some of the city's poorer districts, public transport is overcrowded, and for most of the population, electricity remains intermittent at best.

But in other ways, the city is completely different in the aftermath of the protests. There is an extremely heavy military presence in the main downtown area, and barricades have been constructed around key police and military buildings.

There may be far more soldiers on the streets, but there are decidedly fewer monks. In fact, many of the monasteries are practically deserted, because their inhabitants have either been detained by the military, or returned home, or gone into hiding.

To make my cover story as a tourist seem convincing to any prying military intelligence officials, I visited many of the city's temples and pagodas, especially those recommended in guidebooks.

But because of their links with the monks, I found these sites were also empty, with local people afraid to go there in case they, too, became a target of government repression.

Notice in New Light of Myanmar newspaper
The government is vitriolic about the BBC and other broadcasters
When I visited Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma's main Buddhist site and one of the focal points of the protests, there were only about 20 people there - usually there are hundreds.

It is not surprising that people are afraid of being picked up by the military. All week, I kept hearing stories of people whose friends and relatives had last been seen before the crackdown, and who are now assumed to be in detention somewhere.

One man said he had several of these "lost" friends, and he was afraid he might soon follow them.

"I don't want to be the next one to get a knock on the door from the soldiers in the middle of the night," he said.

Show of normality

When you are in Burma, it becomes obvious how blatantly the government is trying to persuade people that all is back to normal - with acres of media coverage showing mass rallies in which hundreds of people proclaim support for the ruling junta.

Soldier and devotees at temple in Rangoon
There is still a visible military presence in the city
The government is also trying to play down the scale of the protests and the ensuing crackdown, saying they were the result of a few "destructive elements" fomented with the help of outside broadcasters such as the BBC Burmese Service and Voice of America.

But I did not meet anyone in Rangoon who actually believed this. The people I spoke to said unanimously that the protest marches were part of a popular movement borne out of grinding poverty, and that most of those who took part were not active members of pro-democracy or opposition groups - they were just monks and ordinary civilians.

The current situation is undoubtedly dividing friends and relatives, because many families include both monks and soldiers.

But these divisions are something the Burmese know a lot about. Burma is a country where fear has been part of everyday life for so long that people, even young children, have learnt to trust no-one but their closest friends.


One woman told me that, for her, the most amazing thing about taking part in the protests was that everyone there trusted each other - something she had not experienced for a long time.

Fear is endemic in Burma, but then so too is bravery.

Each person taking part in the protests knew they were putting their lives at risk, yet they did so anyway.

Each person we telephoned on often-tapped phone lines, who then agreed to help us, knew the risks and took them anyway.

In fact, some even took risks without being asked. One day, a man who spoke very little English tapped me on the shoulder as I sat in front of him on a crowded ferry going over the river.

After checking no-one was looking at us, he mimed a gun shooting people, then shook his head, saying simply: "I hate government."

That, to me, is a sign of hope. I have now left the people of Rangoon to a still uncertain future, but I know that, whatever happens, these people are not ready to give up on their fight for a better life.

Undercover report from Burma by the BBC's Fergal Keane


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