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Burmese Monks Regroup for Struggle Against Military Government

Monks fleeing the military crackdown in Burma say they are regrouping in preparation for more peaceful demonstrations. Many of those monks are going across the border to Thailand where they are gathering support and resources to continue their struggle. VOA's Luis Ramirez traveled to the border with Burma and met with protesting monks.

The monks traveled hundreds of kilometers from Burma's main city, Rangoon, to this remote location along the Thai-Burma border. They describe a risky journey, one in which they had to conceal their identity at every army checkpoint.

Once in Thailand, the monks keep a low profile, saying they have been warned that Thai authorities may deport them for traveling in the country without papers.

This Buddhist monk fled after taking part in protests in Rangoon. Having learned that a VOA correspondent was in the area, he and others traveled to a hidden location along the border for a meeting to, in his words, tell the outside world that the monks' struggle for democracy and justice in Burma is not over.

"The struggle will go on. Now, the people are re-energizing," he said.

At a border crossing between Thailand and Burma, life appears to go on as normal. Merchants go back and forth with bundles of fruits and vegetables, or furniture to sell.

A quick trip across the border gives a glimpse of a calm Burmese town, a scene that hardly suggests that the country was on the verge of revolution just a few weeks ago.

In late September, Burma's military crushed protests by tens of thousands of monks and other citizens, who had marched in anger over rising fuel prices and decades of repression.

There is no sign of panicked refugees trying to cross into Thailand, as many people predicted after the crackdown. But activists and Thai government sources say hundreds of monks have fled over the border in recent weeks.

Some are likely to remain in exile, but one of the monks who spoke to VOA says he and his group are returning to Burma. They came to Thailand to receive alms and gather other resources before going back to continue their peaceful bid for change.

"I teach other monks at my monastery. I am a teacher. I have a responsibility to carry on. Some monks are missing and I have to go back to search for them, and carry on the struggle," he said.

It is not only the monks who are coming to Thailand as part of efforts to regroup.

U Tun Win is a member of the Burmese parliament that was elected in 1990 but blocked from taking office. Members of his group, the Arakan League for Democracy, led protesters who took over the town hall in the western Burmese city of Sittwe last month.

He fled at the height of the crackdown, saying the military's attack on civilians was a signal for him that the time has come for change. He says there was nothing more he could do in Burma, where he risked arrest and torture.

"My party has been working inside for democracy and human rights for 17 years and nothing can be done in there," said U Tun. "I want to see what can be done from the outside."

Bo Kyi spent much of his adult life in jail, including time at Rangoon's infamous Insein prison, after he was arrested at the age of 20 for opposing the government as a student. He is now in his mid-thirties. He left Burma in July after his release from prison.

He shows a pair of iron shackles of the type he wore in prison, a symbol, he says, of the chains on his country.

The shackles are part of a display at a small museum that a group called the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners operates in the Thai border town of Mae Sot.

Bo Kyi thinks technology and the flow of information will help expose human rights violations in Burma and bring about change.

"The regime always [had] these habits, but the international community, they did not know anything because they always controlled photos and documents. Now the situation has really changed," he said. "So the international [community] sees their brutal actions."

Like Burma's other neighbors, Thailand's government, also controlled by the military, has been largely quiet about the crackdown, but those on the streets have not. Demonstrations have become regular in Bangkok with exiled Burmese and sympathetic Thais calling for justice.

The monk says justice will come for those who are responsible for the violence against the people, especially the monks - the most revered members of the Burma's Buddhist society.

"In the Buddhist belief, because of their actions, they will go to hell," he said.

The military has ruled Burma since 1962. It crushed major demonstrations in 1974 and again in 1988. In this crackdown, security forces have arrested hundreds, perhaps thousands, of monks and others to keep the protests from flaring up again. But analysts say this uprising may be more difficult for the government to stamp out for good because, in the eyes of many Burmese, the monks have legitimacy that the military rulers do not.