Karen Connelly's novel The Lizard Cage (Harvill Secker) won the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize for New Writers. She is now working on the memoir Burmese Lessons.


Thin bone of the skull

There is a crush of people on this side of the street; half a dozen monks and I among them. With news of the crackdown at Hledan Junction still fresh, the bystanders are not so brave tonight – none of us mingle with the student protesters in the middle of the road. Around us and across the road, rallying shouts of "Do ayey, do ayey!" (Our business, our cause) rise out of dozens of mouths.

People on the crowded sidewalks raise their fists in the air. When cars pass, the celebratory sound of honking horns and pop music magnifies, crescendoes and fades back into people's voices. The monks do not join in the yelling, though it's obvious by their presence here that they support the protesters.

It will not be like last night, when the military let the students occupy the street for hours before finally closing in. There is no foreign journalist presence: tonight, the soldiers won't be on film. It seems that everyone understands this.

In 1988, the soldiers opened fire on protesters who shouted out "Do ayey, do ayey!" In Rangoon and Mandalay hospitals, there was not enough blood for transfusions, there were not enough bandages for the wounded. Troops opened fire on the nurses and doctors who walked out of Rangoon General Hospital carrying a banner begging the military to stop shooting people. Soldiers bayonetted many of the younger children who took part in the demonstrations. Rangoon turned into an abattoir.

I can hear the rumble of military trucks approaching, then the metallic clamour of armed men jumping out. For a long, suspended moment, everything and everyone else goes quiet. The student protesters are silent. The crickets and traffic and the music from an empty teashop just behind us, all is swallowed by that distinctive clatter, the most formidable international language: automated rifles and sub-machine guns rattling and clinking against buttons and cartridge belts.

I pick out another familiar sound, closer, more immediate – the thwack of flip-flops slapping the road. Men hoist up their longyis in order to run faster. I turn my head, looking past the stream of frightened people. The soldiers stand a hundred and fifty feet away, jostling weapons and shields. The juxtaposition is riveting. This is the end of a small street protest in a half-forgotten country, but it is also the face of war in the late twentieth century.

For a moment I feel the attraction, the hunger, the near-inevitability of raising the gun and firing. So that power, the purpose of the machine, will be fulfilled. It must be hard for the commanders not to give the order to open fire, hard for the soldiers not to shoot. The brilliantly fashioned metal calls out to the human hands that hold it.

The voices of a few brave protesters crying out "Don't run, don't run away!" sound absurd and heartbreaking.

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