Prayers For Burma

Far from over Burma, as you might expect after the regime's brutal crackdown, some of the monks involved in the demonstrations have fled into neighbouring Thailand.

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Hundreds it could be even thousands are in detention inside Burma. And with the junta seemingly impervious to international pressure keeping an iron grip on any information about their fate, eyewitness accounts of the repression have been incredibly scarce. But last week David O'Shea was across the border when three monks completed the long trek out of their closed country.

REPORTER: David O’Shea

Over the years, hundreds of thousands of Burmese refugees and illegal workers have crossed this river into Thailand. When there's trouble in Burma, people here in the border town of Mae Sot are among the first to hear about it. Last week three monks escaped the Burmese army's crackdown and walked over the border to Mae Sot.

Monk 1 (Translation): It will be more difficult now.

MONK 2 (Translation): Yes, they are now checking the border very thoroughly.

These monks don't want to reveal their identities because they took part in the protests in Rangoon and fear reprisals.

MONK 2 (Translation): If we remain in Burma we'll be in trouble. We'll be arrested and beaten. So to escape that, we came here. We're determined to carry on and to make this protest succeed.

They say the soldiers will go to hell for their violence towards Buddhist monks.

MONK 3 (Translation): We were surprised because we are the sons of Buddha. They will be punished. It's surprising they would do this. Insulting the monks, it is the same as insulting Buddha. They will be condemned to the lowest level in hell.

It's the day after the monks made it across the border, and these Burmese exiles are gathering at a monastery, they've come to express their concern at the Burmese army's crackdown. The vast majority of Burmese are Buddhists but there are Christians and Muslims here today too.

MAN 1: Dear Lord and Heavenly Father, we pray for our country, our country, Burma, a country in crisis. We gathered in this place to pray for peace to come about. Many monks and people have been abused and killed in recent days. Amen.

They needed official permission because this is a sensitive issue here, Thailand makes a lot of money doing business with the generals in Burma.

MAN 2: We are not demonstrating here just we are gathering here to pray for Burmese people, so it's not a demonstration. We are doing with the permit of the Mae Sot…governor. Yes, we are permitted already.

A group of youths begin singing a protest song but while prayer is tolerated here, politics is not.

MAN 1 (Translation): Don't sing that song. Don't sing anything political.

A senior Burmese monk from the monastery comes out to lead the prayers. The local police chief, in plain clothes, wants it over with quickly.

THAI POLICE CHIEF, (Translation): Do not say anything political. And hurry up. Don't talk about politics.

But monk Kama Kultala will not be silenced.

MONK KAMA KULTALA, (Translation): They are crazy with power and they killed monks. That's not good. It has upset the world. If the Burmese people knew that they were being heard, they would be very happy.

THAI POLICE MAN, (Translation): The deputy chief wants you over there.

Kama Kultala has lived in exile here for 30 years. He's horrified by the way the Burmese army has treated the monks.

KAMA KULTALA, (Translation): They arrested thousands of monks, disrobed them to make them ordinary people, and plan to send them to the frontier into forced labour. The government must be feeling that its power is being threatened, that any such incident in Burma will affect its power. They'll suppress any perceived threat from monks or the people. They'll go against their own religion.

Burma's monks have provided the spiritual backbone for the recent protests. Like Buddhist monks throughout South-East Asia, Kultala wakes well before dawn to chant and pray. Then he sets out to collect alms. People who give food get his blessings in return.

KAMA KULTALA, (Translation): According to Buddha, when a monk goes out to accept food he must rely only on his black bowl and his legs.

Buddhism is absolutely central to life in Burma and here in Thailand, and monks are revered. Before the military crackdown monks had upturned their alms bowls and refused to accept the soldiers' offerings. This rejection of spiritual services was a powerful gesture of defiance.

KAMA KULTALA, (Translation): In his lifetime the Buddha made a rule that if his monks are insulted they can upturn their bowls. Their action is in accordance with this rule.

Since then monks have become the main victims of the army's crackdown.

MONK 2, (Translation): A friend of mine sent a letter to the monastery. He said “We need strength. Can you come and join us?” I said I could and we went to join his group.

The monks say the protests began with four demands, an apology for the earlier mistreatment of monks, lowering of fuel prices, release of political prisoners, and a dialogue for national reconciliation.

MONK 2, (Translation): When they saw some monks preparing to go out to chant, when they heard the chanting the other monks all wanted to join in.

They were there on 26 and 27 September when the crackdown began.

MONK 2, (Translation): The people were walking behind us, encouraging us. The people were demanding justice. They were shouting that from behind and we were telling them not to get angry or get into fights. They were following us like that. When we arrived at Thamwe, State High School number three, the soldiers started shooting. Soldiers and the government's mob started beating people and then opened fire. We got frightened and had to flee through the barbed wire.

Although there is no way to confirm it yet, these monks have a horrific story about what happened outside one monastery.

MONK, (Translation): The crowd fled in every direction and we had to run into the residential area. We fled into the lanes and they beat anyone they caught near the monastery. They started shooting as well and a child's brain was blown out.

They were surprised that ordinary people were brave enough to support their protest, the most significant act of defiance in Burma for almost 20 years.

Monk 3, (Translation): Yes, we were surprised that the people came out and protected us on both sides. When we were doing our chants, we were surprised that the people dared to clap and encourage us in every township.

But with the military searching houses and dragging monks out in the middle of the night, ordinary Burmese are now too frightened to shelter them.

MONK, (Translation): We came to Mae Sot because in Rangoon the soldiers came to the monasteries to arrest and beat up the monks. We cannot sleep in people's houses and we were afraid we'd be beaten or arrested. That's why we fled to this place.

The whole thing is like a replay of events in 1988, when an estimated 3,000 people were killed in the crushing of nationwide demonstrations. Khung Saing was jailed for 13 years because of his involvement in that uprising, and he says he met many monks in prison.

KHUNG SAING, ASSISTANCE ASSOCIATION FOR POLITICAL PRISONERS: Including many high-ranking masters of monks also were arrested and sentenced. Not only they were sentenced, some monks were sent to the forced labour camps, More than eight monks were die at the forced labour camps. It is very miserable for our country.

He says that although more ordinary people were killed during the 1988 uprising, for the monks, this time the crackdown is more severe.

KHUNG SAING: 300 monks were arrested at the time but this time thousands were already arrested and some were disappeared.

REPORTER: And you have confirmed that?

KHUNG SAING: Yes. Yes.

REPORTER: Do you have any idea what's happened to the ones who have disappeared?

KHUNG SAING: Yes. I have no idea. It's unspeakable. I am so worried about them. It's difficult to get true information. But maybe they were detainee in some centres or maybe they were totally disappeared.

REPORTER: And is torture common even for them?

KHUNG SAING: Yes, torture is common.

REPORTER: For everyone?

KHUNG SAING: For everyone?

Khung Saing says the monks have been building up to these demonstrations since democratic elections were overturned in 1990.

KHUNG SAING: This time they knew it was the right time and they need to lead the people in peaceful way.

REPORTER: So it was a coordinated thing.

KHUNG SAING: Yes. Yes.

REPORTER: And building over many years?

KHUNG SAING: Yes. Yes. They already establish this organisation. This is not the ending, it is just the starting.

26 October marks the end of the Buddhist Lent and many predict this is when another round of demonstrations may begin.

MONK 2, (Translation): After we have contacted our monk friends we will decide whether to return to Burma or not.

From their safe house in Mae Sot, these monks say they will continue to push for change, and they are not willing to wait another 20 years.

MONK 3, (Translation): We are not that patient. We are willing to walk until we die.

MONK 2, (Translation): We will try to get this outcome quickly. We're determined to have our demands met.

With a ruthless crackdown still under way, it's hard to see how they will be able to coordinate more protests. But Kama Kultala is hopeful the generals will not be around forever.

KAMA KULTALA, (Translation): Buddhism is about constant change, change can be slow or fast, for better or for worse. Everything changes in every way. From my experience everything changes.

GEORGE NEGUS: And according to dissident Burmese groups, in the last 24 hours, the army has targeted Burma's last remaining communications links with the outside world, shutting down the Internet and blocking mobile, fixed-line and satellite phones.

Feature Report: Prayers for Burma

Camera/Reporter

DAVID O’SHEA

Editor

ROWAN TUCKER-EVANS

WAYNE LOVE

Fixer

SOESOE

Translations/ Subtitling

MYINT (Burmese)

HSO HOM SAO (Burmese)

KANYARAT RITTIDECH (Thai)