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Page last updated at 10:32 GMT, Saturday, 29 September 2007 11:32 UK

Burma hurtling into the unknown

By Andrew Harding
BBC News, Bangkok

Over the last week protesters against the military government in Burma have been shot at and beaten. Streets have been barricaded and temples and monasteries occupied by security forces attempting to stop the protests. Communication with those inside the country is difficult, but some information is getting out.

Demonstrators with sticks
No-one would dare attack the monks, demonstrators hoped
You could hear the gunfire down the phone line. And the fury in the man's voice.

It was Thursday afternoon and he was running, the muffled crack of bullets overhead.

Then shouts, and then his breathless description, "They're carrying a body past me now - someone's been shot."

I could picture where the crowd was heading.

A week ago I had stood by the same overpass next to the Sule pagoda in the centre of Rangoon, China town to the west. A scrum of taxis waiting by the bus stop.

The city was quiet then. Quiet and scared.

I left Burma soon after that. And it feels like I have spent almost every waking moment since then on the phone, trying to get through to friends and contacts in a country now hurtling into the unknown.

Changing mood

To begin with, the voices were euphoric.

I could hear the exhilaration catch in the diplomat's throat.

It was last Sunday afternoon and she had just been watching tens of thousands of people march past the embassy.

"It's just amazing", she said. "And everyone's smiling, and peaceful".

A Burmese friend called up giddy with excitement.

"I never thought I would see this," he said. "I don't know where the crowds came from but they've filled the whole city.

Troops in Rangoon
By Monday, there were soldiers on the streets
"Everyone is following the monks. Surely", he said, "the soldiers won't dare to attack them."

And for a while, it was almost possible to believe Burma was finally having its Berlin Wall moment.

But by Monday, the mood was changing. Soldiers on the streets. It was getting harder to reach people inside.

After 20 tries, I got through to the home of a man who has spent a decade in jail for criticising the regime. He now lives in a dark, thread-bare house in the suburbs.

In precise, detached language he explained that a military response would soon be forthcoming.

"We can only hope", he said, "they will show restraint".

I thought back to a meeting I had at a monastery nearby, and the calm, resigned voice of an old monk.

"The army", he said, "will never run out of bullets".


You will have noticed I have not been mentioning the names of anyone I have spoken to, for their own safety.

But when I was in Burma, two people insisted they wanted to be identified in my reports.

We discussed the risks. They knew them all too well, but felt the situation demanded boldness.

Rangoon seems to be sinking once again beneath its familiar, suffocating blanket of fear
Well, this Wednesday morning, the phone rang early.

It was a friend in Rangoon, calling to tell me that both men had been arrested in the middle of the night.

Zargana, Burma's most famous comedian, and U Win Naing, a 70-year-old democracy and human-rights campaigner are still in jail along with countless others - no reason given.

And now, despair is creeping into almost every phone call.

One man today was telling me how he had just come home on a bus full of people in tears. Everyone was talking about the way the soldiers had attacked the monks dragging them out of their monasteries.

Rumours buzzing

There is so much anger in Burma right now, particularly about the brutal treatment of the monks.

But, as the crackdown continues, Rangoon seems to be sinking once again beneath its familiar, suffocating blanket of fear.

What worries me now is what the regime is doing behind closed doors, at night, to the monks, to the people in jail
Burmese diplomat
There is one thing which is still keeping people's hopes alive and that is the thought that, just maybe, the military is starting to split because of the bloodshed.

The internet is buzzing with reports, or rumours, about feuding generals and individual units refusing to take part in the attacks on monks. But it is not yet clear how much of that is wishful thinking, and besides, right now there seem to be plenty of units that are ready to obey orders.

'Encouraging news'

I have just got off the phone to the diplomat who had been so elated last Sunday. She was about to head home before the curfew starts.

A map of Burma showing the capital Rangoon and Mandalay
"It's all such a waste", she said despondently. "I think I always knew last weekend's elation wouldn't last.

"What worries me now is what the regime is doing behind closed doors, at night, to the monks, to the people in jail."

She had one bit of encouraging news though.

On my last trip, I had been in contact with a woman called Nilar Thein. She is a 35-year-old activist who was in hiding, hunted by the authorities. Her husband is in jail, and her baby daughter under police guard.

I thought she might have been arrested too by now. But she is still on the run and in good health, waiting, like everyone else in Burma, to see what sort of country will emerge from the bloodshed and the defiance of the past week.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 29 September, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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