New York, October 5—Despite the faltering signal on the satellite phone and the emotion in his voice, Nay Tin Myint’s message came across clearly: Burma is not free.
Myint, a pro-democracy activist and former political prisoner of the current Burmese junta, was one of seven voices heard at Friday’s emergency press conference, “Monks, Media and the Military: the Saffron Revolution.” Myint spoke from Mae Sot, Thailand, near the Burma-Thailand border.
The meeting was called in response to reports that Burma’s ruling military junta has killed dozens, possibly hundreds, of students, monks, and other peaceful protesters over the past week. Protests began on August 19 after the government raised fuel prices; they gathered momentum when large numbers of Buddhist monks joined the marches.
The panel also included two Burmese monks, two activists for human rights and democracy in Burma, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Paulo Sergio Pinhiero.
Speaking first, Pinhiero seemed out of touch with the purpose and atmosphere of the meeting. He did not comment on that morning’s meeting between the UN special Envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari—just back from the country—and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. More surprisingly, he barely touched on the current situation in Burma, focusing instead on a statement adopted three days earlier at the UN Human Rights Council session on Myanmar (Burma) in Geneva. Pinhiero called the statement “a powerful message,” citing its strong language and adoption by consensus—including by India and China, backers of the Burmese junta—as a sign of progress on the issue.
According to the statement, the council “strongly deplores the continued violent repression of peaceful demonstrations in Myanmar, including through beatings, killings, arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances,” and “urges the Government of Myanmar to ensure full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms….”
The rest of the speakers were quick to describe Burma as a country under fierce military lockdown. Aung Din, a pro-democracy activist and former political prisoner, stated that despite the Burmese government’s claim that only nine people have died so far, in reality “more than 200 protesters have been killed by the military junta in a matter of days.” Over 3,000 monks and other protestors have been detained in the city of Rangoon alone, he said. Despite the bleak situation, Din remained defiant.
“The people in Burma have already proved with their skin and blood that they want democracy,” he said.
Ashin Nayaka, one of the maroon-robed Buddhist monks, stunned the audience by saying that, to his knowledge, at least 138 monks had already been killed. Eighty senior monks were still being kept in government prisons, he said.
All of the speakers stressed the need for international support and reporting on the junta’s crimes. Aside from Mr. Pinhiero, however, the panelists did not seem convinced that the UN’s efforts had been good enough so far. Din argued that previous resolutions had simply been “abandoned and ignored by the regime.”
The evening ended with words of hope.
“The Saffron Revolution will not turn back,” Nayaka said. “The military junta can control the monasteries but it’s difficult to control our hearts, our souls, our determination.”