Burmese junta chief Than Shwe had ordered troops to shoot protesting monks during the September 2007 mass uprising, leaked US diplomatic cables allege.
The claim is buried in the middle of a November 2007 cable sent from the US embassy in Rangoon to Washington by former US political and economic chief to Burma, Leslie Hayden.
Published in Norwegian daily, Aftenposten, the cable sees Hayden paraphrasing a redacted source who claims his “military contacts” knew of Than Shwe’s intent during the protests.
“According to [TEXT REMOVED BY AFTENPOSTEN]´s military contacts, both Than Shwe and Maung Aye gave the orders to crackdown on the monks, including shooting them if necessary,” it says, referring to the junta chief’s second-in-command.
“Number three General Thura Shwe Man personally opposed the order, but carried it out, quietly advising regional commanders to do so with minimal bloodshed.”
How many monks died in what became known as the Saffron Revolution is unknown, as is the total number of demonstrators killed by Burmese troops. Burmese state media put the official toll at 13, while UN Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur Paulo, Sérgio Pinheiro, quoted independent sources who claimed that 30 to 40 monks were among the more than 100 killed.
Sparked by a sudden 66 percent rise in fuel prices, the protests became the biggest show of defiance against the ruling junta since the student uprising of 1988.
Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win responded to early criticism of the way the army handled the protests by saying that the hundreds of thousands of men and women on the streets had been encouraged by foreign or exiled forces.
“Recent events make clear that there are elements within and outside the country who wish to derail the ongoing process (toward democracy) so that they can take advantage of the chaos that would follow,” he said, making no reference to the deaths.
He also praised the initial “restraint” shown by troops in the early days of the protests, which gained momentum on 18 September, but said the subsequent crackdown was necessary “to restore the situation”. Up to 6000 people are believed to have been detained.
Despite the reverence with which Burma holds its monastic community, monks currently account for 254 of Burma’s 2,189 political prisoners. One monk, U Nanda Vathu, is serving a 71-year sentence, while nearly two dozen of those detained are serving sentences of 20 years or more.
The cable, dated 28 November 2007 and titled “BURMA: THE DIALOGUE IS DEAD”, is one of thousands released by whistleblowing website, Wikileaks. They also reveal French concerns about business operations in Burma, as well as heightened US concerns about Burma’s cosying relationship with North Korea.