BANGKOK (Reuters) - In the immediate aftermath of a plane crash, natural disaster or military crackdown, it is the number that everybody wants to know to give the event its rightful place in the sliding scale of history and human tragedy.
But pinning down an accurate death toll is hard enough in even the most advanced of nations, let alone one ruled for 45 years by a reclusive military junta.
In Burma, where troops opened fire last week to clear the streets of Buddhist monks and civilians demanding democracy, state media say 10 people were killed, including a Japanese video journalist shot at point-blank range, according to video footage.
Western governments have offered no toll of their own, but say it is likely to be far higher than numbers reported by a military regime whose official mouthpieces accuse foreign radios of broadcasting “a skyful of lies”.
Then there are the ordinary people phoning CNN or the BBC to give accounts of what they have seen or heard, not to mention the bloggers and dissident or exile news organisations -- all of them deeply enmeshed in a wildly spinning rumour mill.
Some of the figures aired suggest up to 200 dead across the country, or up to 200 dead across Yangon, or up to 100 dead in a single incident outside one high school in Yangon.
The Daily Mail went a stage further saying: “Thousands of protesters are dead and the bodies of hundreds of executed monks have been dumped in the jungle”.
Its source was a former intelligence officer called Hla Win who it said fled to the Thai border after being ordered to take part in “a massacre of holy men”.
The truth is, nobody knows what the true toll is and it will be weeks, months or even years before any consensus is agreed.
“I don’t think even the generals have any idea what the real death toll is at the moment,” one Hong Kong-based Burmese human rights expert said.
In 1988 an estimated 3,000 people were killed in the ruthless suppression of protests that lasted several months.
WHERE ARE THE MONKS?
One of the few things for certain is that hundreds of monks believed by the junta to have coordinated the biggest pro-democracy protests in 20 years have disappeared.
“It’s the question on everyone’s mind and in the pit of their stomach. Where are the monks?” said one Bangkok-based diplomat just back from Yangon, or Rangoon as it used to be called.
The monks themselves say six of their brethren in Yangon died in clashes with soldiers and police trying to break up their processions through the city, or in a series of midnight raids on rebellious monasteries.
Outrage among Burma’s 56 million people at the mistreatment of the deeply revered Buddhist clergy is being stoked by photos doing the rounds of the rotting body of a maroon-robed and shaven-head young man lying in a pool of water.
As authentic as it looks, it is impossible to know when or where the picture was taken.
In one of the world’s most closed countries, it is equally impossible to substantiate reports of hundreds of monks held at a technical college near the infamous Insein prison. One version has 40 monks beaten to death and their bodies burned.
“Groups of diplomats were meeting every day and literally driving around trying to find some member of the government to talk to and get information from, driving from building to building and ministry to ministry,” the Bangkok diplomat said.
“One Western country was demanding an audience and finally got through to the director of a language institute.”
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) (AAPPB), a Thailand-based group of former detainees dedicated to cataloguing those behind bars, says “over 1,000” monks were arrested on September 26 and 27 across the country.
On its Web site, the AAPPB -- whose more long-term political prisoner statistics are widely accepted as the most accurate -- gave a monastery-by-monastery breakdown of its numbers.
Excluding five entries of “several monks”, its tally is 665. Where the remaining 335 are is anybody’s guess.
Additional reporting by Darren Schuettler
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