Buddhist monks may be able to
protest in the streets of Burma, but other pro-democracy activists risk being
labelled as "terrorists" and arrested by the authorities. Activist Nilar Thein
has been on the run for one month.
Rangoon is looking shabbier than usual these days. It is a damp, stagnant city
trapped in a snaking curve of the Irawaddy river.
Ancient buses rattle past
gloomy warehouses and bright pagodas. Grand colonial buildings green with moss
back onto dark courtyards reeking of sewage and decay.
The generals who rule Burma moved out of the city last year, having built
themselves a brand new - and spectacularly pointless - capital nine hours drive
to the north. Thousands of frustrated civil servants were forced to follow them,
Since then, the authorities seem to have stopped paying for Rangoon's upkeep.
And the trees now loom low over the avenues, patting the heads of passing cars.
Today, somewhere in this city of nearly five million people, a Burmese woman
called Nilar Thein is on the run.
She is 35, with a broad, open face, dark shoulder-length hair, and a reputation
for extreme stubbornness.
Nilar Thein is number five on a long list of "terrorists" in
She has been hiding for a month now - moving every
couple of days to a new house - hunted by a huge force of security officials,
plain-clothed policemen, informers and hired thugs.
Nilar is number five on a long list of "terrorists" - the generals' title for
almost anyone who dares to challenge them.
They have already arrested her husband, Jimmy, and more than 100 other
pro-democracy activists. No-one knows where they are being held, or what will
happen to them.
The authorities stopped allowing the Red Cross to visit their jails, and more
than 1,000 political prisoners, a couple of years ago.
Used as bait
Nilar and Jimmy lived in a small second floor apartment in the north of
Rangoon. Not too far from the house where Burma's democracy icon Aung San Suu
Kyi is still being kept under house arrest.
Their apartment is now guarded by plain-clothed policemen. Two at the door. Two
outside. Two across the road. They are waiting to see if Nilar will come back
for something rather precious - her five-month-old daughter, Nay Kyi, or
Nilar's five month baby, Sunshine, is left with her grandmother
Nilar took the child with her at first. But Sunshine's cries were in
danger of giving them both away. Now Jimmy's elderly mother is looking after
One night recently, Nilar sneaked back close enough to hear her baby crying
through an open window.
"They are using her as bait," she said. "I should be breast feeding her. But
I cannot give in."
She is, a friend told me admiringly, a stubborn woman.
88 Student Generation
Nilar and Jimmy are members of what is known as the 88 Student Generation, a
reference to the last major uprising against the military here back in 1988.
They have both spent time in jail already. Nilar nine years, Jimmy 16. They
both thought hard about whether to have a child at all, given their particular
And now Rangoon is swirling with rumours that Jimmy's dead - tortured and
killed in prison. The rumours are probably not true. Maybe they have been spread
deliberately, to get Nilar to give up.
More likely they are just a product of the silence that festers here, in the
absence of any independent news.
The newspapers in Rangoon are all tightly controlled. No pictures about monks
demonstrating this week. Instead there are photos of the generals giving lavish
gifts to monasteries.
Inside are venomous editorials - styled, it seems, on the North Korean model
- lashing out at traitors within, and devious foreign enemies.
Sense of paranoia
I read the papers over breakfast, then stepped out of the hotel wrapped in a
cloud of paranoia. Surely the authorities have spotted the foreign journalist.
Why is that man watching me from the cafe over the road? Did this taxi driver
just happen to be driving past at the right time?
There is good reason to be wary. On the phone, diplomats and activists here
talk carefully - no names, no details. Rangoon slang. In the past few weeks,
hundreds of mobile phones have been cut off by the authorities.
The police write down the number plates of cars on certain roads. Informers
watch every street corner. E-mail is restricted too - Yahoo and Gmail accounts
are often blocked.
Well, half blocked.
For all the security and the fear, this is not a competently-run country. And
it is not China.
Hotels and internet cafes use dozens of proxy servers to bypass the
government's crude attempts to police the internet.
And that is why footage of the latest protests here - of the thugs beating up
demonstrators and of hundreds of monks marching through Rangoon - is leaking out
to the world.
Buddhist monks marched through the streets of Rangoon in protest
The protests seem to have caught everyone by surprise.
Certainly, almost no-one expected them to gain such momentum.
They were triggered by the government's unannounced, overnight decision to
slash fuel subsidies. Isolated in their new capital, the generals either did not
know or care what impact this would have. Suddenly millions of people could not
afford the bus home, or to school.
So, how will the thieves react to this extraordinarily public humiliation?
Will they crack down like in 1988, or sit back and wait for fear to do its job?
There are 400,000 monks in Burma. The fact is that so far, most have not
taken to the streets. Sitting quietly in his monastery, an older monk explained
to me that everyone is born afraid here - and the army will never run out of
Hoping for change
Something has changed this week in Burma. Perhaps something profound.
But there is a lot of wishful thinking going on too. It is so tempting to
imagine a velvet revolution. Nilar Thein and Jimmy reunited with their baby
daughter. Aung San Suu Kyi walking calmly out of prison, her uncompromising
stance finally vindicated after years of isolation.
But the odds are still not good. The generals have their own version of
reality - their surreal capital, their shiny new constitution. Their plans for
carefully supervised elections later in the year.
Somewhere in the backstreets of Rangoon, Nilar Thein is sitting alone and
alert, waiting for the wrong sort of knock at the door. Hope is keeping her
going. But in Burma, hope hurts.
From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on
Saturday 22 September 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check theprogramme
schedules for World Service transmission times.