You should get closer," says the young woman in the crowd behind me. "If foreigners are here, they won't shoot." It's about 1 p.m. on Sept. 27, and I am wedged among thousands of pro-democracy protesters near the gold-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 woman behind me is hoping that they won't want to create an international incident by firing on a scruffy-looking Brit, and that my presence will protect the protesters. She will soon be proved terribly wrong. But for the moment, the protesters appear undaunted, even jubilant. They are chanting a Buddhist mantra whose melody will haunt me for days to come:
Let everyone be free from harm.
Let everyone be free from anger.
Let everyone be free from hardship.
It was the Buddhist monks who first sang this mantra. For a week now, they have been marching through these streets, calling peacefully for change in a country that has been ruled for almost a half-century by a barbaric military junta. Burma's monkhood and military are roughly the same size--each has 300,000 to 400,000 men--but there the similarities end. With the monks preaching tolerance and peace and the military demanding obedience at gunpoint, these protests pit Burma's most beloved institution against its most reviled.
"Get closer," the young woman urges. The troops are a hundred yards away, and I think that's close enough. I'm mindful of reports that just last night the military raided more than a dozen monasteries, beating and arresting hundreds of monks. And I know that soldiers like these snuffed out Burma's last great pro-democracy uprising in 1988, killing and injuring thousands. I know they will not hesitate to shoot, whether or not there's a foreigner present. Sure enough, seconds later they open fire. From that moment on, the world's most unlikely uprising--with its vivid images of marching monks and exuberant students, of golden pagodas and rain-drenched streets--feels doomed.
I fell in love with this country 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 the Burmese worldly and eager to talk, and I quickly formed lasting friendships. I returned perhaps a dozen times, witnessing changes that were usually for the worse. People grew poorer and were stalked by disease and malnutrition. Schools and hospitals crumbled from neglect. Insurgencies raged along the rugged borders. The only real constant has been the junta, which seized power in 1962 and has run a promising nation into the ground. But there have been some positive changes too. A 2004 internal purge dealt a blow to a once fearsome spy network. A year later, the regime moved to a remote new capital it called Naypyidaw, or "the Abode of Kings." 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 quietly began regrouping. Then, two months ago, members of this self-styled '88 Generation hit the streets to protest the government's fuel-price hikes.
Their protests were quickly snuffed out--or so the junta believed. Three weeks later, I arrived in Rangoon to witness what now seems like a dream: my first vision of the marching monks.
Sunday, Sept. 23
They pour out of the Shwedagon, an immense golden pagoda that is Burma's most revered Buddhist monument, two miles north of downtown Rangoon. The monks form an unbroken, mile-long column--barefoot, chanting their haunting mantras, clutching pictures of the Buddha, their robes drenched with the late-monsoon rains. They walk briskly, stopping briefly to pray when they reach Sule Pagoda. Then they're off again, coursing through the city streets in a solid stream of red and orange, like blood vessels giving life to an oxygen-starved body. Their effect on Rangoon's residents is electrifying. At first, only a few brave onlookers applaud. Others clasp their hands together in respectful prayer or quietly weep. Then, as people grow bolder, the monks are joined by tens of thousands of Burmese, some chanting their own mantra, in English: "Democracy! Democracy!"
I learn that just yesterday, a group of protesters walked past the crumbling lakeside home of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent 12 of the past 18 years under house arrest. Standing behind barricades manned by riot police, Suu Kyi prayed with the crowd for 15 minutes before tearfully urging them to march on.
Monday, Sept. 24
At a Pagoda in the Shwedagon's shadow, Aung Way, a poet and '88 stalwart jailed three times for his political views, presses into my hand a poem, which I shove into my pocket. Some of the monks chew betel nut, which makes their mouths froth alarmingly with bloodred saliva. The oldest monk, who is 49 and holds a Burmese translation of Francis Fukuyama's The Great Disruption, says the monks have three demands: "Release Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners; begin a process of national reconciliation; lower the prices of daily commodities."
The junta's response comes in the evening, when Brigadier General Thura Myint Maung, Minister of Religious Affairs, is quoted on state television as promising action against the monks. Within hours, trucks with loudspeakers are cruising Rangoon's dimly lit streets, announcing a curfew and threatening to arrest anyone who marches with the monks.
Tuesday, Sept. 25
The crackdown starts slowly. Several well-known democracy activists are arrested overnight. Aung Way goes into hiding. Guiltily, I retrieve his poem. "We want freedom," it reads. "We want friendship between our army and our people." The New Light of Myanmar, a junta newspaper, blames the violence on "hot-blooded monks" who "are jealous of national development and stability."
Still, the monks march. The demonstrations are so large that downtown Rangoon has a carnival atmosphere. Students have now joined the march, waving red flags bearing their emblem, the fighting peacock. At the rear of the column is a group of shaven-headed Buddhist nuns in their bubble-gum-pink robes.
Wednesday, Sept. 26