Page last updated at 11:27 GMT, Friday, 12 October 2007 12:27 UK

Burma: Your questions answered

Monks and ordinary people demonstrating in Rangoon (Photo by Pierre Darbellay)
Kate McGeown has recently returned from a trip to Burma in the aftermath of a crackdown against anti-government protests.

Here she answers some of the questions sent in by BBC News website users.

Did you feel that the people you met in Burma were mostly driven to dissent by economic hardships? Are they consistently striving for democracy or is there mostly simple hatred of the government? Rase Mazeika, Kitchener, Canada

The roots of these protests, as with the demonstrations in 1988, lie in economics rather than politics. In 1988 it was a currency devaluation that triggered the demonstrations; this time it was a sudden surge in fuel prices.

Political activists did take part in the rallies, but as one demonstrator described it to me, the protests were definitely anti-government but perhaps not entirely pro-democracy.

Poverty on the banks of Irrawaddy (Photo: Tom Ross)
Tom Ross sent this image of poverty on the banks of Irrawaddy
You could also tell that from the number of calls for help received by international agencies. Most of the callers had no background network to turn to for help - they were just ordinary civilians looking for loved ones who had gone missing during the protests.

That doesn't mean people don't care about democracy though. People in Burma talk of the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi almost reverently, referring to her as The Lady, and many see her as their nation's saviour.

Do you think the situation is ever going to change, or will the shocking quelling of the demonstrations slowly sink out of the media and the people of Burma will once again be forgotten? Alison Rose, Glasgow, Scotland

For now, the government appears to have succeeded in quashing the protests and is very much back in control.

While the outside world watched the monks paraded down the streets of Rangoon, and hoped for regime change, colleagues of mine who have reported on Burma for decades served as a reality check.

'People's Desire' printed on the pages of New Light of Myanmar newspaper
The BBC and other foreign media were called liars in newspapers
They warned me that, no matter how much the monks were encouraged both at home and abroad, they could never overthrow the 400,000-strong military - one of the strongest in the region.

Burma experts know the solution lies in discussions with the military generals, leading to concrete moves towards democracy. In fact, even Aung San Suu Kyi has acknowledged that the military is, and always will be, a central part of Burmese life.

But that does not mean the protests have not achieved anything. They have badly shaken the military generals, forcing them into agreeing to meeting Aung San Suu Kyi. They have also given people a brief glimpse of freedom.

And outside Burma, they have brought the plight of the Burmese people to a new generation of people, who are lobbying their governments to press for change.

I'm deeply concerned about reports of protesters' bodies being burned at a municipal crematorium in Rangoon. These things are of course very difficult to confirm, but I wonder if you had any indication of that while you were there. David Lamotte, Black Mountain, NC, USA

This is a question I can't actually give a definitive answer to, but I've included it here as an example of one of the many emails we've received about reports and rumours that we can't verify.

My colleagues and I have heard several stories of night-time cremations being done secretly in a Rangoon crematorium shortly after the crackdown, and this could well be true, but we can't prove it.

Because of the lack of information coming from the government, there is a huge rumour mill in the country right now.

It's difficult to get accurate information in Rangoon, but it's even more difficult outside the main cities, where protests were also taking place.

The truth is that we may never know exactly how many people died and were detained as a result of the crackdown.

What do those Burmese struggling for freedom feel about India and China at this moment? Niraj Lama, Darjeeling, India

India and China, as Burma's main trading partners, have come under a lot of pressure from the international community to take firm action against Burma.

But people I met on the ground did not seem to have much faith in either nation to have a positive influence on the ruling generals.

One woman we spoke to said she thought China wasn't interested in helping ordinary Burmese people - a view that was reinforced when she noticed that the soldiers who took part in the crackdown were brought into Rangoon in Chinese-made trucks.

Have the various ethnic minorities which have suffered most under the regime been actively involved in the protests? Conor Keogh, Dublin, Ireland

Burma has many different ethnic groups, and any truly democratic future government will have to take them into account, and possibly agree to some of their demands for autonomy.

Poverty in Hsipaw, Shan State (Photo: Tom Ross)
It is difficult to get information from the Shan State. (Photo: Tom Ross)
Under the current regime, the poverty of ethnic minorities is often even worse than it is for ordinary Burmans. They tend to live outside the main cities, so information about them - and their participation in the protests - has been hard to come by.

But there are reports that many members of the Rohingya minority - a Muslim group native to the region - joined the monks' protests in the city of Sittwe in the poverty-stricken western state of Rakhaing.

Groups such as the Karen, Shan and Karenni, on the border with Thailand, are also thought to have joined in with the marches, according to aid organisations on the Thai-Burma border.

Ethnic groups in the border area - especially the Karen - have been actively persecuted by the military, and have been fighting a guerrilla campaign for more than four decades.

When you arrive in a place like Burma, how exactly do you go about approaching people to comment on the current crackdown? Do you introduce yourself as a journalist or do you casually start asking questions? Mateo Stein, Bogota, Colombia

The main priority for reporters working in Burma has to be the safety of the people they come into contact with. The risks for foreign journalists are nothing compared to those taken by their informants.

Talking to people by phone is difficult - telephone calls are often tapped - and a meeting place needs to be chosen carefully.

I take the view that if you have specifically contacted people to ask questions about their life or work, it is only fair to tell them what you are doing with that information.

But you can also glean a lot by having short conversations with the people you meet. Whether those people guess what you're doing or not, I find it's best not to be too explicit - both for their sakes and for the sake of other interviewees.

We're planning to go to Burma in the middle of November. Do you think it'll be of any help to the Burmese people to have foreigners for tourist purposes in their country, or does it play into the hands of the junta? Silvia, Switzerland

Schwedagon pagoda
Schwedagon pagoda is one of the country's main tourist attractions
Many people - including Aung San Suu Kyi and major campaign groups - believe tourists should stay away from Burma, because it's impossible to go there without giving money to the government in one way or another.

Others say that tourist dollars are a vital source of income for an impoverished people, and that visitors from abroad are an important witness to what is happening there.

I don't think it's my place to say what you should do. But if you choose to go, and you want to maximise the money that goes to local people, it's best to stay in smaller non-government-run hotels, and buy items from the less official-looking tourist shops.

And while you're there, try not to put people at risk by immediately asking political questions. People are really friendly, but many are understandably afraid to talk about certain issues and it's best to let them initiate this type of conversation.

The other thing to bear in mind is your own safety. Some governments - including the US and UK - are advising people against visiting Burma right now. Get as much up-to-date information as you can before you travel.

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