You should get closer," says the young Burmese woman in the crowd behind me. "If foreigners are there they won't shoot." She is terribly wrong.
It's about 1 p.m. on Sept. 27, and I am wedged among thousands of pro-democracy protesters near the golden-domed Sule Pagoda in downtown Rangoon. Facing us are hundreds of soldiers and riot police, who look on edge as they finger their assault rifles. The protesters, mostly ordinary Burmese clad in sarongs and sandals, appear undaunted, even jubilant. Defiantly, they chant a Buddhist mantra whose melody will haunt me for days:
Let everyone be free from harm.
Let everyone be free from anger.
Let everyone be free from hardship.
The Buddhist monks first sang this mantra. For a week now, they had been marching, calling peacefully for change in a country ruled for almost half a century by a corrupt and barbaric junta. Burma's monkhood and military are roughly the same size both have between 300,000 and 400,000 men but the similarities end there. With the monks preaching tolerance and peace, and the military demanding obedience at gunpoint, these protests pitted Burma's most beloved institution against its most reviled.
"Get closer," the young woman urges, but a hundred yards away feels close enough. Last night, soldiers like these had raided monasteries, beating and arresting hundreds of monks. Soldiers like these had also snuffed out Burma's last great pro-democracy uprising in 1988 by killing and injuring thousands. I know they will not hesitate to shoot.
Sure enough, seconds later, they open fire. But until that moment until the moment this jubilant crowd scatters in anger and fear millions of Burmese had glimpsed what life was like without their hated rulers. That glimpse might yet undo a junta, which today faces unprecedented pressure from its long-suffering people, from other nations, and perhaps even from within its own military ranks. Are the protests that took place over 10 days in late September over, or merely dormant?
I am a Briton who first fell in love with Burma a decade ago, bewitched by its rich culture, breathtaking landscapes and hospitable people. Despite their isolation and the ever-present fear of arrest, I found Burmese to be worldly and eager to talk; I quickly formed lasting friendships, and Burma became the subject of my second book, The Trouser People. I returned perhaps a dozen times, witnessing changes that were usually for the worse. People grew poorer, stalked by disease and malnutrition. Inflation lurched ever upwards. Schools and hospitals crumbled with neglect. Insurgencies raged along the rugged borders. The brightest Burmese sought lives abroad. The only real constant was the junta, which had seized power in 1962 and run a promising nation into the ground.
But there were positive changes, too. The 2004 purge of military intelligence chief Khin Nyunt dealt a blow to a once fearsome spy network. Then, one year later, the regime moved to its remote new capital at Naypyidaw. Suddenly, people in Rangoon seemed to talk a little more freely. Mobile phones and the Internet arrived and, despite being costly and state-controlled, were embraced by thousands. Student activists jailed after the 1988 protests were released and regrouping as an alternative to the National League for Democracy (NLD), the beleaguered party of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent 12 of the past 18 years under house arrest.
It was members of this self-styled '88 generation who hit the streets in August to protest the government's fuel-price rises. The protests were quickly snuffed out, or so it seemed. Three weeks later, I arrived to witness what now seems like a dream: a first vision of the marching monks.