Three monks who helped organize protests in Burma last September, and eye-witnessesed the brutal crackdown by the military government, made their first public remarks in the United States Wednesday. The three monks spoke at a briefing of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in Washington, where they also expressed their opposition to a national referendum on the constitution, scheduled for May 10. VOA Correspondent Cindy Saine reports from Washington.
Six months ago, tens of thousands of students and monks demonstrated against the military government in the streets of Rangoon. The mainly peaceful protests, known as the "Saffron Revolution," were triggered by a dramatic spike in fuel prices, caused by the cancellation of fuel subsidies. Authorities responded by beating and jailing protesters and raiding monasteries.
Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich says Burma's government is threatening ordinary people's survival.
"In Burma, we saw in the last year a tremendous increase in the price of gasoline, diesel fuel, natural gas, they are really trying to crush people's ability to even survive, financially, you know, economically," he said.
Three eyewitnesses to the events in Burma managed to flee the country and have been permitted to resettle in the United States. U Kovida was an organizer of the Monks Representative Group, which led the first demonstration by monks in Rangoon before the crackdown. He fled to Thailand, and became one of the first monks to tell the outside world of the violence.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, the people of Burma are not only suffering from extreme poverty, hardship, substandard healthcare, education and social services, but also facing oppression by the military government on a daily basis," he said. "When monks in Burma understood, realized and felt the hardship the people had to go through, we decided to protest peacefully and everyone knows how we were dealt with."
Another monk, U Gawsita, was a member of the "All Burma Monk's Alliance", and a major leader of the protests by monks in Rangoon. He summed up the results of the brutality.
"Nearly 200 monks and people were killed and seven thousand, over seven thousand were arrested," he said. "I was also beaten on my head."
Estimates on the number of people killed vary widely. The three monks said security in Rangoon is still tight, and troops are patrolling the streets of the capital ahead of next month's planned referendum on the constitution. All three rejected it, calling it a "sham". The proposed constitution will guarantee 25 percent of parliamentary seats to the military, and ban opposition leader San Suu Kyi from holding office, because her late husband and sons are British.
The monks called on the U.S. Congress to ban the import of Burmese rubies and jade into the United States and to freeze the assets of Burmese political and military leaders.