Police in Burma’s former capital were out in force on Monday in an effort to block gatherings meant to commemorate the fourth anniversary of a monk-led democracy movement, according to participants and witnesses.
Three buses carrying some 150 people to downtown Rangoon from nearby Northern Dagon township to gather in remembrance of the 2007 “Saffron Revolution” were stopped by police in Mayangon township, about seven miles from its destination, one of the passengers told RFA.
The passengers alighted from the buses and wanted to stage a march but were barred.
“We tried to march on Kabaaye Pagoda road, three people in a row. We were blocked near the post office by police and told we could not march,” the passenger said.
“A high-ranking police officer came and told us that the law bans gatherings of more than five people.”
The passenger said eight trucks carrying riot police appeared and blocked the group from moving any farther.
“When we couldn’t move on, we made a plea for the political prisoners still in jail from the Saffron Revolution and prayed for those who died, before returning home,” he said.
The Saffron Revolution democracy protests, which began on Sept. 18, 2007, were led by thousands of Buddhist monks until the then-ruling junta’s security forces moved in on Sept. 26. Dozens were killed in the crackdown.
The bus passengers had been on their way to meet others at Rangoon’s central Sule Pagoda, located inside a traffic circle next to City Hall, a witness who attended that gathering told RFA.
“We all planned to meet at Sule Pagoda to march together, but the buses were stopped. Still, a group of people did gather. They wore yellow shirts, which are a symbol of peace and of the Saffron Revolution,” the witness said.
A participant in the gathering at Sule Pagoda, which served as a rallying point during the 2007 Saffron Revolution, said the police presence at the site had been heavy throughout the day.
“Lots of police were stationed around the traffic circle, preventing people from gathering in groups of more than five. In the morning, we were made to disperse, but in the evening, 75 to 100 people gathered and climbed the pagoda wearing their yellow shirts,” Han Win Aung told RFA.
“The police arrived and told us that we must leave within 15 minutes. During that time, we prayed at the pagoda. The police didn’t bother us, and we left when the 15 minutes were up,” the former leader of the 88 Generation Students pro-democracy group said.
Separately, prayer services for those killed during the Saffron Revolution were held at monasteries in two locations outside of Rangoon, including Southern Oakkalapa township and Northern Dagon township—the point of origin for the buses traveling to Sule Pagoda.
More than 60 monks presided over the ceremony in Southern Oakkalapa township, which was attended by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party chiefs Tin Oo and Win Tin. 88 Generation student leaders also read a statement calling on the government to release all of Burma’s more than 2,000 political prisoners.
The prayer service in Northern Dagon township was held at a monastery for novice monks.
Recollecting the bloody crackdown on the Saffron Revolution, monks who had taken part in a protest gathering on Sept. 26, 2007 said they hadn't expected soldiers to fire on protesters as they prayed during a campaign for change near Shwedagon Pagoda.
A day later, public and civil organizations had joined the monks in a show of support for the country’s revered monastic community, they said.
Burmese authorities systematically plotted to crush the movement, hiring thugs to stage military-style raids on monasteries a day after the protests were launched on the night of Sept. 27, according to the monks.
The actions of the government forced the monks to scale back their protests out of fear that the public would suffer, they said.
But Burma's Buddhist monks are still highly politically active despite the military crackdown, clamoring for reforms.
The new nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein has introduced a series of reforms since coming to power after landmark November elections but has not released the political prisoners or set the stage for an end to fighting against armed ethnic groups campaigning for greater representation.
Witnesses have cited increased security in Burma in recent weeks to discourage protests in connection with anniversaries of the Saffron Revolution, the biggest show of opposition to the then military junta since 1988.
The United Nations has estimated that at least 31 people, including a Japanese photojournalist, were killed when the army suppressed the protests. Hundreds were arrested, and many others fled Burma or went into hiding.
In a show of solidarity from across the ocean, the Washington-based U.S. Campaign for Burma delivered 13,000 petition signatures from American citizens to President Barack Obama’s administration on Monday, calling for greater pressure against the Burmese government to end “crimes against humanity.”
“A year ago President Obama finally declared his support for an U.N. Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity in Burma, but he has yet to turn his words into action,” Myra Dahgaypaw, campaigns coordinator at the U.S. Campaign for Burma, said in a statement.
“Civil war and human rights abuses are escalating in Burma, and U.S. leadership is crucial to bringing justice to the country.”
The group cited the displacement of more than 70,000 people, sexual violence, and forced labor by the Burmese army, which it said broke a decades-long ceasefire agreement with ethnic groups in the region leading to renewed civil war in the past seven months.
“This is in addition to decades of attacks against ethnic minority civilians resulting in the displacement and destruction of over 3,700 villages."
"This increase in crimes continues despite the fact that Burma claims to have transitioned into a ‘civilian’ government,” the statement said.
Reported by San San Tin, Zaw Moe Kyaw, and Khin Maung Soe Min for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin Maung Soe. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.