I have done the best I can with the following report. Each time the soldiers come through our quarter, for reasons of safety I have to scrub my communications, close everything down, and hide my notes and devices. In the recent past our local security volunteers were able to give us a five- to ten-minute warning of troop arrivals. Unfortunately, the ranks of our security team have been decimated; almost all of its members have fled or are in hiding. This is partly because of the loss of the ability to use our walkie-talkies, but to a greater extent it’s due to the sad reality that the soldiers and police have identified many of our security people and are actively searching for them in our quarter.
A day or two ago soldiers appeared without warning and, in my rush to sanitize works in progress, I accidentally deleted my notes. I will have to reconstruct them as best I can. Hence, the events described below are accurate, but the same cannot be said with certainty for the dates and times.
On the night of March 27 a nearby quarter came under a great deal of pressure from the soldiers but, perversely, that ward has one big advantage. It contains a lot of housing for poor workers, most of whom live in bamboo cottages lacking dependable electricity, which at night generally makes for a dark neighbourhood. People there have no internet, but among them we have very good contacts.
In that impoverished quarter, a truckload of about 16 soldiers chased a large group of demonstrators down a side street. I don’t know the specifics, but the unarmed protesters somehow trapped the soldiers on a road in the pitch-black darkness. Apparently the soldiers were surrounded and in a real jam. A tremendous amount of gunfire and stun grenades ensued, but no one was hurt because it was too dark for the soldiers to see their targets. Then, several flares went up adjacent to the single army truck—a call for reinforcements, who arrived soon after. As several truckloads drove up the demonstrators vanished into the night.
Damn! Perfect example. As I was writing the above, police and soldiers arrived in our quarter and everyone started to beat pots and pans. We continued banging away for quite some time, but our unwanted visitors didn’t respond as usual by shouting, cursing, breaking windows, throwing stun grenades, and rifle fire. We were not too surprised by this, and in fact were not expecting a reaction. I apologize that I can’t say why, because to do so would give away my location. Anyway, back to where I left off.
Around midnight on March 29 someone posted a desperate plea for help, asking for people to go immediately to that same poor quarter, and to inform all the embassies about the tragedy unfolding there. While we had heard similar pleas before, this one was much more frantic and urgent. I’m sure that others tried to get there to help, but I cannot confirm this. I can say that, from about midnight to 1 am, people from all over this area furiously banged pots and pans in hopes of drawing soldiers out of that quarter.
A minimum of 22 people have died there in the last three days; other sources suggest the number is greater than 30. Those arrested were forced to kneel before the soldiers and, using a bullhorn, one of them told the demonstrators that if any more slingshot stones came their way the soldiers would be ordered to shoot those who had been detained. An armoured vehicle with a tank turret was also brought in, but there were no reports of its use.
We were told that, in addition to the hand grenades that soldiers hurled in the past week, they are now launching rocket-propelled grenades. We heard exactly the same thing from another township a couple of days earlier. We received some before-and-after photos of a barricade that had reportedly been fired upon with an RPG. While, clearly, a huge hole had been blown through the barrier, I cannot confirm that it was caused by an RPG. It could have been some other type of munition, but it does appear to my untrained eye that it had to have been something more powerful than a hand grenade.
We also saw a photo of a body that had been thrown onto a burning barricade, of what seemed to be tires, and received numerous reports of soldiers breaking into homes, stealing anything of value and throwing food into a nearby drainage canal. They are continuing even today, two days later, to try and arrest anyone in that quarter associated with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.
Shit!! Gunshots and stun grenades going off. I have to shut down.
OK, trying again. Earlier tonight the police chased some students down our street. They stopped in front of one of our safe houses and my heart sank as the policemen shouldered their rifles. Then, amazingly, they looked in a different direction and departed a few minutes later. After we got the all-clear, one of my housemates decided to walk to the nearby market. We have a standing joke that she is like a magnet: whenever she goes out we can be sure that soldiers will soon be drawn toward her. She has already twice been forced into hiding when soldiers suddenly appeared to conduct raids and random arrests.
Anytime friends leave my apartment, I am on what I call “balcony watch,” since from my balcony I have a clear view of the route that they must take. True to form, in the time that it took her to reach the market the situation on the street changed completely. I phoned and told her not to return. Minutes later, people in the street below suddenly scattered in all directions. I called her again and said to stay put. After the all-clear was given I called once more and told her to run back. She got halfway down the empty street when three policemen began to approach from the opposite direction, but a quick-thinking trishaw driver persuaded them into his vehicle and drove them away.
Damn it again!!! Pots and pans are sounding. Scrub and hide. I have no information about what is happening and I can’t see anything on the road. But I hear, “bang, bang, bang”!
A little later, out of curiosity, I decided to go out to a place a short distance away from my apartment to see what was going on. While there, I spotted an unknown group of protesters that has begun operating in the area. Because of my particular view through the trees, I could see what others probably could not. This group was in action and I had a pretty good idea what they were up to, but for their safety I can say no more. I realized that I was exhausted so I headed back home.
I guess it’s evident from what I’ve written above that most days, what with the constant interruptions, it’s difficult to get anything done. Given the hour, I shall not be able to finish this today or maybe even tomorrow, but I should mention that today Clarissa Ward, CNN’s chief international correspondent, is in the country. As most people know, all mobile data services have already been shut down, meaning that probably 90 per cent of people have no internet access. Apparently, the military elected to keep the WiFi operational in Ms. Ward’s honour but decided to cut the electricity, so there’s no internet at all!