September 29, 2007 / 11:24 AM / 12 years ago

Smiles and tourists vanish from Myanmar

YANGON, Sept 29 (Reuters) - The traditionally hospitable people have clammed up and the tourists have disappeared from the streets of Myanmar’s main city amid fear and anger at the military’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

Yangon’s famed Buddhist shrines are barricaded with barbed wire and police and soldiers patrol the streets, arresting anyone they suspect of taking part in protests, shoving them onto trucks with rope binding their wrists.

Residents, renowned for their warmth, go about their business grim-faced.

"Three weeks ago when we were here everyone was smiling, but that’s finished now," said Heidi Colombo, a tourist from Brussels who returned to the former capital after three weeks travelling around the country.

Now, foreign tourists have all but disappeared from this elegant but dilapidated city.

In The Strand, Yangon’s most luxurious hotel, the wood-panelled bar has been bereft of revellers since a night curfew was imposed four days ago.

The Hotel Nikko, overlooking the shimmering waters of Kandawgyi Lake, has halved its rates but its lobby remains empty, the death of a Japanese journalist during a demonstration on Wednesday putting off its main clientele from Japan.

In Mandalay, the country’s major seat of Buddhist learning, the receptionist at one normally bustling hotel said she only had three guests even though the former Burma’s second city appeared to have witnessed less violence than Yangon.

"There was a little bit of soldier on the road, but very far from our hotel. Nobody died," she said in halting English. "Not so dangerous in Mandalay."


The mass demonstrations have stopped since Thursday, when soldiers fired bullets and tear gas into crowds after beating up and arresting hundreds the monks who had lead the protests.

But in the afternoons, dozens of mainly young men gather at street corners eyeballing the military and police.

Before this week’s violent crackdown, even security officials were happy to smile and chat with visitors.

"Only last week it was so relaxed. Some police were playing chequers in a park. I sat down with them and played too," said one Westerner who declined to be named.

A few days later, the same men were probably being deployed with batons and rifles to use against their fellow countrymen.

Until Wednesday, the marches, originally sparked by a shock rise of fuel prices before the maroon-robed monks took up the lead, had been peaceful.

One one occasion, not repeated, hundreds of monks had even been allowed to gather in front of the house of Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and democracy icon who has been detained for nearly 12 of the last 18 years.

People cried and one witness said a police officer guarding the gates to Suu Kyi’s leafy lakeside villa had dropped to his knees and bowed when the Nobel peace laureate appeared.

Within days, the generals would send in the troops, and the city would be echoing to the sound of gunfire.

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