A Plea for Burma

A Gesture of Solidarity in What Has Been so Far a Losing Battle

On The Town | Tanja Vicas | November 2007

A Burmese monk conducting a prayer ceremony, on Stock Im Eisen Platz inVienna

It was hardly an unlikely place for people to gather, when you consider just how many people pass by St. Stephen’s Square (Stephansplatz) on any given weekend. Everyone from luxury store owners to buskers from all over Europe realise that this very heart of Vienna is the most upbeat Mecca of the city.

But on this thankfully sunny and warm Saturday in October, a different crowd had gathered, to protest against the military government of Burma (Myanmar) where over the 45 year period, repression had replaced democratic rule.

In recent weeks, pictures of the saffron-robed monks had splashed across the media, pleading for international support that had not come. These were the largest demonstrations that the country had seen in the almost 20 years, since Burma was taken over by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLOC) that declared martial law in 1989 and re-named the country the Union of Myanmar.

Events like the Oct. 6 rally were at least a gesture of solidarity in what has been so far a losing battle.

At the head of the crowd at Stock im Eisen Platz, Margot Pires, from the Austrian Burma Center raised her hand to silence the crowd. She had organized the rally in cooperation with the ÖGB (Austrian Trade Union Federation) and Fairtrade and drew the crowd’s attention to the brutality that had taken over so many aspects of life in Burma: the systematic use of forced labour, induction of child soldiers and use of rape as a weapon of the war against its own people. The demonstrations have gained momentum since the summer, she said, as a protest to an increase of gas and diesel oil by 500%, allegedly to cover the salary increases of civil servants.

Set against backdrop of stately palaces of central Vienna, activists and passers by watched as a Burmese monk conducted a prayer ceremony amidst a sea of yellow roses to the gentle beating of a drum. With him were a woman and young girl who had also managed to defect from Burma, offering prayers for a people who are prisoners in their own country.

In the shimmer of sunlight reflected in the glass facade of the Haas Haus giving the stonework of St. Stephan’s Cathedral a roseate glow, the faces of the crowd that had gathered remained solemn as they listened to an accounting of the atrocities of the Burmese junta. In the wide open space of the square, volunteers of the Austrian Burma Center in Vienna were passing out handbills which gave a short chronology of the "Saffron Revolution" and summed up the conflict in the ravaged country: "Burma’s military regime has maintained power by silencing free speech, imprisoning and torturing opposition leaders and democracy supporters, and terrorizing ethnic minorities including the destruction of more than 3,000 villages and displacement of more than 1 million refugees."

Looking up at the clear, blue sky, it was difficult to imagine that elsewhere the destruction of more than 3,000 villages and the displacement of more than 1 million refugees had taken place with hardly a word of international protest.

The beating of the drum and the prayer chant ascended in an emotional crescendo and reached its denouement. There was a moment of silence. No one seemed to breathe. Every face was poised in suspended animation. Then a tear rolled down the young girl’s cheek. She wiped her nose, signalling the end of the prayer ceremony.

In closing, Pires of the Austrian Burma Center spoke up again: Would we gather up the yellow roses lying on the ground?

"These roses symbolise the people of Burma," she said. "Take them with you into your world of freedom…"

Other articles from this issue