Monks confined in a room with their own excrement for days, people beaten just for being bystanders at a demonstration, a young woman too traumatised to speak, and screams in the night as Rangoon’s residents hear their neighbours being taken away.
Harrowing accounts smuggled out of Burma reveal how a systematic campaign of physical punishment and psychological terror is being waged by the Burmese security forces as they take revenge on those suspected of involvement in last month’s pro-democracy uprising.
The first-hand accounts describe a campaign hidden from view, but even more sinister and terrifying than the open crackdown in which the regime’s soldiers turned their bullets and batons on unarmed demonstrators in the streets of Rangoon, killing at least 13. At least then, the world was watching.
The hidden crackdown is as methodical as it is brutal. First the monks were targeted, then the thousands of ordinary Burmese who joined the demonstrations, those who even applauded or watched, or those merely suspected of anti-government sympathies.
“There were about 400 of us in one room. No toilets, no buckets, no water for washing. No beds, no blankets, no soap. Nothing,” said a 24-year-old monk who was held for 10 days at the Government Technical Institute, a leafy college in northern Rangoon which is now a prison camp for suspected dissidents. The young man, too frightened to be named, was one of 185 monks taken in a raid on a monastery in the Yankin district of Rangoon on 28 September, two days after government soldiers began attacking street protesters.
“The room was too small for everyone to lie down at once. We took it in turns to sleep. Every night at 8 o’clock we were given a small bowl of rice and a cup of water. But after a few days many of us just couldn’t eat. The smell was so bad.
“Some of the novice monks were under 10 years old, the youngest was just seven. They were stripped of their robes and given prison sarongs. Some were beaten, leaving open, untreated wounds, but no doctors came.”
On his release, the monk spoke to a Western aid worker in Rangoon, who smuggled his testimony and those of other prisoners and witnesses out of Burma on a small memory stick.
Most of the detained monks, the low-level clergy, were eventually freed without charge as were the children among them. But suspected ringleaders of the protests can expect much harsher treatment, secret trials and long prison sentences. One detained opposition leader has been tortured to death, activist groups said yesterday. Win Shwe, 42, a member of the National League for Democracy, the party of the detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has died under interrogation, the Thai-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said, adding that the information came from authorities in Kyaukpandawn township. “However, his body was not sent to his family and the interrogators indicated that they had cremated it instead.” Win Shwe was arrested on the first day of the crackdown.
It was the russet-robed Buddhist clergy, not political groups, who had formed the backbone of demonstrations during days of euphoric defiance and previously undreamed-of hope that Burma’s military regime could be brought down by peaceful revolution. That hope has been crushed under the boots of government soldiers and intelligence agents and replaced by fear and dread.
A young woman, a domestic worker in Rangoon, described how one woman bystander who applauded the monks was rounded up. “My friend was taken away for clapping during the demonstrations. She had not marched. She came out of her house as the marchers went by and, for perhaps 30 seconds, smiled and clapped as the monks chanted. Her face was recorded on a military intelligence camera. She was taken and beaten. Now she is so scared she won’t even leave her room to come and talk to me, to anyone.”
Another Rangoon resident told the aid worker: “We all hear screams at night as they [the police] arrive to drag off a neighbour. We are torn between going to help them and hiding behind our doors. We hide behind our doors. We are ashamed. We are frightened.”
Burmese intelligence agents are scrutinising photographs and video footage to identify demonstrators and bystanders. They have also arrested the owners of computers which they suspect were used to transmit images and testimonies out of the country. For each story smuggled out to The Independent, someone has risked arrest and imprisonment.
Hein Zay Kyaw (not his real name) received a telephone call last week telling him to be at a government compound where the military were releasing 42 people, among them Mr Kyaw’s friend, missing since he was plucked from the edge of a demonstration on 26 September. Mr Kyaw told the aid worker: “The prisoners were let out of the trucks. Even though now they were safe, they were still so scared. They walked with their hands shielding their faces as if they were expecting blows. They were lined up in rows and sat down against the wall, still cowering. Their clothes were dirty, some stained with blood. Our friend had a clean T-shirt on. We were relieved because we thought this meant that he had not been beaten. We were wrong. He had been beaten on the head and the blood had soaked his shirt which he carried in a plastic bag.”
The United States yesterday threatened unspecified new sanctions against Burma and called for an investigation into the death of Win Shwe.
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in a statement: “The junta must stop the brutal treatment of its people and peacefully transition to democracy or face new sanctions from the United States.”
The scale of the crackdown remains undocumented. The regime has banned journalists from entering Burma and has blocked internet access and phone lines.
Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK says the number of dead is possibly in the hundreds. “The regime covers up its atrocities. We will never know the true numbers,” he said.
At the weekend the government said it has released more than half of the 2,171 people arrested, but exile groups estimate the number of detentions between 6,000 and 10,000.
In Rangoon, people say they are more frightened now than when soldiers were shooting on the streets.
“When there were demonstrations and soldiers on the streets, the world was watching,” said a professional woman who watched the marchers from her office.
“But now the soldiers only come at night. They take anyone they can identify from their videos. People who clapped, who offered water to the monks, who knelt and prayed as they passed. People who happened to turn and watch as they passed by and their faces were caught on film. It is now we are most fearful. It is now we need the world to help us.”