Following are excerpts from an interview with a Burmese witness to the September 2007 Saffron Revolution. He asked to be identified only as Zarni:
On Sept. 5, at about 2 p.m., more than 100 monks left the Western monastery and went along Bogyoke Street heading east. When they reached the Central monastery, the number of monks increased to between 200 and 300. By the time they reached the Eastern monastery there were almost 500 monks and, from there, I saw them proceed to the main pagoda saying metta [loving kindness] prayers.
There may have been reports that this would happen, but [the people of Pakokku] didn’t know in advance. Only when the monks came out did the people come out on the streets in throngs to watch them.
There were crowds all over the place, along both sides of Bogyoke and Taung Taing Streets. The streets were full of people. There must have been hundreds of thousands of them. Some of them were paying obeisance [with hands held together] and some were clapping. But the monks told them to stop clapping, so they all put their hands together in the act of paying obeisance to the monks.
I was on my way back from picking up my child from nursery school, and as I got to the traffic lights near the hospital in the center of the city I saw about 20 armed soldiers, about the size of a platoon, led by 101 Battalion G-1 [General Staff Officer grade one] Colonel Khin Maung Htwe and Major Myo Thant Zin, waiting. I was shocked and shaken by the sight.
So I ran toward the monks and reported this to them. The monk who was leading the procession told me that they were marching along with metta and that if the military took action against them without any mercy, to let them do so because the monks would continue to spread their metta. And the monks continued with their procession.
Tears of compassion
The public just waited with concern to see what would happen. They were worried that the military would resort to violence. Some were so much in sympathy with the monks that we could see tears in their eyes. Even I could not hold back the tears of compassion for the monks.
At that time I had my child with me, so I took him home. When I came back the monks had started to disperse and run in the streets. I could see a few slippers and robes of the monks left behind. When I saw the monks run I shouted at them not to do so. At that time there were about 12 gunshots, and I was so affected that I even shouted out at them to shoot at me instead. Some monks ran into the Eastern monastery and some into the hospital.
At that time, reports emerged that 10 monks had been arrested. The roads were immediately cordoned off. This is where the incident occurred. Both ends of the road were closed off. No one could enter. The people who were watching were also ordered to leave—some even got hit on their heads with batons. I saw this with my own eyes.
Some [of the spectators] got hurt and ran with their hands covering their heads. I don’t think anyone was critically hurt, as they were hit on their heads with bamboo batons.
I just wanted to know what had happened to the monks, so I went into the Eastern monastery and stayed with them. No one could go back into the street where the incident occurred. They cordoned it off completely. In the Eastern monastery, I asked the monks for details of what had happened.
A life in hiding
After the incident on Sept. 6-7, the media asked me a lot of questions…so I told them what really happened. In the newspapers, like the Myanmar Ahlin [New Light of Myanmar], it was reported that political activists in Pakokku and the media conspired and made up the whole affair. This in effect made us look like their enemies.
On Sept. 6, I had reported the news about how the monks from Central monastery had burnt and destroyed cars belonging to the authorities. When [the authorities] realized that this was my doing, from the early morning of Sept. 7, I noticed that intelligence agents were following me wherever I went. So I didn’t go home but went into hiding in the afternoon.
It is sad to talk about [my family life]. Just because I got politically involved in a small way, the people around me didn’t like it, so my wife asked for a separation. Last year I had to give her permission for a separation.
At that time more than 30 people [who had spoken with the media or encouraged the monks] were arrested. They were released after about a week. Those who are still not released are parliamentary member U Hlaing Aye and organizer U San Pwint. Those two are National League for Democracy (NLD) members. They are held in Myingyan Prison and have been sentenced to 2-1/2-year prison terms.
In addition, there are four other civilians who are not members of the NLD and are also not related at all with the Pakokku incident who were arrested. They are U Lay La, U Thant Shin, U Tha Aung, and U Sein Lin. They have been held in Thayet Prison since I left on the night of Sept. 7, and no judgment or sentencing has been made against them. They are still in Thayet Prison. [Editor’s note: Sentences were handed down Sept. 11]
They are normal citizens. It’s impossible for the authorities to accuse them of supporting the monks as practically everyone was doing it. I have heard that they have been charged under Penal Code 147 for inciting monks to create disturbances. The authorities believed that these people were inciting the monks to burn down the electrical equipment shop of the USDA secretary Hla Win Naing, who had been instrumental in giving information to arrest the monks. I heard that this is why these people have been charged under Penal Code 147.
Although they are not NLD members, they are seen as people who have a political agenda, so the authorities have held grudges against them in the past. So that is why they have conjured up unfair charges and have arrested them.
A sense of unease
Not just the Pakokku monks, but all those who are devout Buddhists will feel a sense of unease and will never forget this incident.
I don’t think I am in a class where I can say that I am politically active. But what people who have been involved in politics feel is that even your best friends want to dissociate themselves from you if you are political. At this moment not only will my close friends not visit me, but even my wife has asked for separation. And it’s really sad that even my mother who used to visit me once a month now won’t visit me at all.
Original reporting by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Soe Thinn. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Edited and produced in English by Joshua Lipes and Sarah Jackson-Han.