Brandishing clubs and slingshots, the mob of protesters hurled stones and abuse down the street in the direction of the Burmese soldiers. Straining to make their voices heard over a hundred meters away, they chanted "Release our monks!" and "Aung San [hero of Burma's independence struggle] would never have killed his own people!" as they broke off chunks of concrete from the curbside and tore down street signs, which they attempted to block the road with.
The Burmese military, accompanied by plain-clothed thugs, stood at the opposite end of the street, machine guns and riot shields at the ready. Minutes before they had surrounded a monastery and beaten the Buddhist monks back as they tried to exit the temple after lunch. In response a mob of civilians had formed down the street shouting for their release.
Along with two other photographers I had arrived a few minutes after the mob had formed. There was an intense feeling of outrage in the air and it looked like only a matter of time before the situation turned violent. Until now the protests we had witnessed over the previous days had been relatively calm with thousands of Buddhist monks marching through the streets of Rangoon, peacefully voicing their disapproval of the government's handling of the economic situation in Burma. But as we were photographing this much more confrontational scene, the soldiers suddenly charged and started firing an assortment of tear gas, live rounds and rubber bullets into the crowd.
The protesters had positioned themselves at a four-way intersection so that when the soldiers advanced everyone scattered in three different directions. I headed to the right with one of the other photographers and then darted down a side street where a Burmese family beckoned us into their house to hide. One of the problems for any photographer trying to work in Burma is that the junta isn't particularly fond of foreign journalists and if caught you risk arrest, expulsion or possibly worse. So when the protesters scatter, you do too.
After about 10 minutes, my colleague and I decided it was safe enough to go back out so we made a half-circle around the block to rejoin the protest on an adjacent road. By that time the situation seemed to have arrived at a stalemate with the protesters over 400 meters away and the military firing only the occasional tear gas canister or burst of rubber bullets.
This was the fourth day of large-scale anti-government protests in Rangoon but the military had begun cracking down the previous day by blocking off roads to temples and detaining a number of Buddhist monks.
Information on what was happening in Rangoon was slow to trickle down but protests were taking place in various locations throughout the city. We caught a taxi back downtown to check out the situation there.
As we neared the city center we came upon a large gathering of demonstrators so we stopped the driver and got out. The scene we encountered there was a strange dichotomy—on one end of the street there were flip-flops strewn everywhere and protesters verbally taunting soldiers who were blocking off the road to Sule Pagoda. On the other end there was a large, serene looking group of demonstrators seated in the middle of an intersection being lead in prayer by Buddhist monks. Ironically, the contrast of violent tempers on one end and prayer at the other seemed completely appropriate at the time—both understandable reactions in such a time of adversity.
Eventually, blocked off from heading west or south, the monks led this peaceful group of protesters north in the direction of a bridge. The moment they began walking, the other photographers and I got out in front of them, backpedaling and photographing with our backs to the bridge. The demonstrators sent runners ahead to make sure the military had not blocked off the road on the other side of the overpass but unfortunately the runners missed something.
As we approached the middle of the bridge, the crack of machine gun fire echoed from behind me. I quickly spun around to see government soldiers pouring up two stairwells, one on each side of the bridge. They advanced forward, fanning out to cover the road, firing live rounds into the crowd of protesters the moment they came into view; a well-planned attack on an unarmed 'enemy.'
The panic in the crowd was animal-like, a stampede to safety. People were being shot, people were being tripped, stomped on. I ran directly up the main road with the majority of the protesters, sprinting to get out ahead and then stopping and turning around to photograph the people running away.
When I reached the intersection where everyone had been praying only a few minutes earlier, there was confusion. People had been separated from friends, from loved ones. A monk looking completely disoriented walked towards me with blood dripping down his arm and shoulder. He had been shot in the back and he was in a kind of shock. People started examining the wound and then the monk began to pray right there in the middle of the street, a gaping hole in his back, blood soaking his saffron robe.
Japanese AFP photographer Kenji Nagai was also killed that day along with an unknown number of protesters. That night the military raided Buddhist monasteries and arrested a number of monks. The result was predictable. Over the next couple of days the protests were extremely fragmented. The junta had sent its message. And, confident they had broken the back of the protests, they became more aggressive in the attempts to arrest demonstrators. The troops coordinated their attempts to chase people down--they would surprise demonstrators by coming from two or three directions at once. By Sunday, a couple of days later, the protests were basically nonexistent.
The U.S. and other western nations widely condemned the brutal crackdown by the Burmese junta and imposed a menagerie of sanctions. But a month on, the vast majority of protesters remain behind bars, the arrests continue and very little, if anything, has changed inside Burma.
© Will Baxter
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