Splashing holy water over commuters, the Buddhist monks clutch their saffron robes around their knees and squeeze on to the crowded decks of ferries lined up in the transluscent dusk on the Hlaing river.
Above the estuary, the glow from thousands of imported Chinese candles fills the windows of the old quarters of Rangoon. In the private back room of a smoky riverside tea house, dock workers gloomily slurp flat grey noodles from porcelain bowls and curse the power cuts that have left Burma's capital a virtual ghost town after dark.
In a corner, Ko Min Shah looks furtively towards the door, half-expecting the 'Em-Eye', Burma's sadistic military intelligence service. He scribbles in frustration as his Biro runs out. 'I want to write a message for you with my wife's details, to take out for me. You can carry it to the Thai border; she may be there. There are charities there who can help me, no?' he says hopefully. 'I'm not politically motivated. I'm just trying to find my wife. There is no real dissent here in Rangoon. People are too scared to be members of any democratic movement. We are all just victims, people like me who are trying to get their lives back.' Ko Min, 47, his wife and two sons were swept up with hundreds of others in a military raid on their village close to the city of Bagan in 2005. The family were put to work, clearing jungle, digging latrines and an irrigation system for a military camp outside Mandalay.
'My youngest son and I only managed to escape last November,' he says. 'It was the rainy season and we were swept down a ravine and managed to escape the camp. I still don't know if my wife and eldest are there. I see her every night breaking rocks at the roadside. She is in my nightmares, not my dreams.'
'Porterage', a colonial euphemism meaning forced menial labour, sits at the heart of the humanitarian crisis enveloping Burma, whose dreams of democracy were shattered in 1962 when Ne Win, commander of the armed forces, embarked on an ill-fated push toward socialist totalitarianism that brought the army to the centre of society. Under Ne Win and his successors, the Burmese military rulers - the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) - have become convinced that foreigners are trying to destroy them, a view that shapes international relations and their persecution of democracy campaigners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who is still under house arrest in Rangoon.
Over the past decade, up to a million people such as Ko Min Shah have been exiled to 'satellite zones' and 'labour camps', building bridges, military camps, irrigation systems and oil and gas pipelines. Forever denying the extent of the slave camps, Burma's junta last week announced a 'historic deal' with the International Labour Organisation, allowing victims of the camps over the past 40 years to seek compensation without fear of retaliation. The ILO claims the junta will establish a 'complaint mechanism', but so far not one victim has so much as contacted the ILO.
In Burma today, there is no free speech. The universities, historically a source of political activism, have been virtually dismantled by the regime. Owning a computer modem or a fax is illegal, and anyone talking to a foreign journalist is at risk of torture and jail.
Working here is risky and unpredictable. Obtaining entry as a journalist is practically unheard of, forcing reporters, including myself, to enter as a tourist. The state - and in particular the Director of Defence Services Intelligence (DDSI) - conducts surveillance of 'suspicious foreigners' and one can expect e-mails, phones and contact with locals to be intensely monitored. Hire cars are bugged; internet cafe owners take periodic 'snapshots' of customers' monitors.
Last week, I was stopped outside a Rangoon bar and questioned by three men, inevitably DDSI. After confiscating my passport, they took me to a police station and questioned me for several hours about my family, education and movements in India, where I live. It was clear they had been following me for at least 24 hours. I was finally thrown out in the early hours of the morning on to an empty street miles from my hotel.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has just been ordered to close its offices, ending its humanitarian work in border areas, where 500,000 tribespeople live in fear of the military, and around the new capital, Naypyitaw, where gulag-style camps exist.
The road there can be fatal, warn the few aid workers left in the dismal bars of Rangoon. No one knows what prompted the junta to relocate Burma's capital to this isolated, dusty place 200 miles from Rangoon. The first brick was laid in November 2005, a date apparently chosen by an astrologer. The first to move, last year, were elements of the military, who forcibly recruited thousands of local people to build garrisons and a major dam to generate electricity; 100,000 slaves are thought to be building it.
Mway Khaing, one of some 20,000 Mon villagers forced to work on the roads to Naypyitaw, said: 'Soldiers came at night to my village last January. Young and old, women and men, older children, we were treated alike, like animals and slaves. Those who ran were shot in the back. A mother-of-four, my neighbour, was tied to a pole and raped. They tied a huge stone around her neck and left her to be eaten alive by the ants.'
Rangoon has seen its first protests since 1987. At the heart of the protests has been the country's staggering inflation. Across the country, electronic goods are endlessly repaired and recycled, for want of replacements: all over Rangoon, tradesmen can be seen gluing books back together, soldering ancient transistors or respooling the tape on old audio-cassettes. The generals claim the economy is growing at 10 per cent a year.
With the average salary about 1,300 kyats ($1) a day and the price of a small bag of rice at least 400 kyats, life under the twin blights of military rule and international sanctions is becoming increasingly intolerable. 'Why do human rights abuses like forced labour camps continue to grow in Burma,' asks David Mathieson, from New York-based Human Rights Watch in Thailand. 'Well, you could start by asking its neighbours. The junta has deftly played them off one another, notably China and India, as they compete for regional influence and natural resources, including natural gas.
'Generals have become masters at turning energy deals into protection money and where do you think that the money is going to go? It's not going to education or health programmes - it's going to the military to build a better command centre in the mountains to repress the population.'
Last year, Russia, also a major arms supplier to the regime, voted against putting Burma on the UN Security Council agenda. The very same day, Russia's state-owned Zarubezhneft oil company was awarded Moscow's first contract to explore Burma's offshore oil and gas reserves.
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