/ 28 September 2007

Burma crackdown draws outrage, protests

Fuelled by ”revulsion” at Burma’s violent crackdown on popular protests against military rule, South-east Asia rounded on the generals on Friday and critics planned demonstrations at embassies across the region.

While the streets of Burma’s former capital were quiet early on Friday, protests were expected at embassies in Taipei, Canberra, Manila and Tokyo, where government officials were trying to formulate a response to the crisis.

In Canberra, some protesters were detained and an axe seized after a group of around 100 clashed with police while trying to charge the Burma embassy there.

Burma state media said nine people were killed when soldiers fired on crowds in Yangon on Thursday, drawing unprecedented outrage from the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), one of the few international groups to have the generals as a member. It expressed ”revulsion” at the crackdown.

Australian ambassador Bob Davis said the actual death toll could be far higher.

Asked for an unofficial estimate of the number of those killed, Davis told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio: ”Several multiples of the 10 acknowledged by the authorities”.

One of the dead was a Japanese photographer, shot point-blank according to video footage, when soldiers charged crowds near Sule Pagoda, the focus of more than a week of mass protests against decades of military rule and economic hardship.

Japan said it would decide whether to suspend humanitarian aid for Burma after investigating the killing.

The monks who have turned what started as small protests into a mass uprising by lending their huge moral weight to demonstrations against the junta, said they were not going to quit.

Speaking anonymously to Burmese-language foreign radio stations, they said they had formed a ”united front” of clergy, students and activists to continue the struggle.

That could mean more to come of the bloodshed which drove Asean into a rare condemnation of a fellow member of an organisation which operates on consensus.

Asean foreign ministers, excluding Burma, said they were ”appalled to receive reports of automatic weapons being used” and demanded an immediate end to the use of force against civilians.

UN envoy to be allowed in

In one small concession, the military which has ruled Burma under various guises for the last 45 years, agreed to admit United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari, who is now in Bangkok waiting for a visa.

The White House said President George Bush had thanked China, the closest the junta has to an ally, for helping win consent to a visit by Gambari, charged with ending the harshest crackdown since 1988 when an estimated 3 000 people were killed.

Gambari is expected to brief the UN Security Council on his return to New York.

A day after troops cleared central Yangon, telling protesters they had 10 minutes to leave or be shot, the streets of the city were unusually quiet during the morning rush hour.

Yangon and the second city of Mandalay were placed under night curfew this week after crowds estimated at up to 100 000-strong took to the streets, the biggest challenge to the junta since the 1988 uprising.

Despite seething anger among Burma’s 56-million people, far fewer demonstrators took to the streets on Thursday after soldiers raided at least 10 monasteries and carted off hundreds of monks accused of spearheading the protests.

One monk was killed in the raids, a monastic source said, taking to six the number of the Buddhist clergy to have died in the crackdown against protests that started on August 19 with small marches against shock rises in fuel prices.

The monks, the country’s highest moral authority now on a direct collision course with the military machine, said late on Thursday they would not be cowed despite the arrest of more than 500 of their brethren.

It is not known where the hundreds of detained maroon-robed clergy are being held.

The junta told diplomats summoned to its new jungle capital, Naypyidaw, that it was ”committed to showing restraint in its response to the provocations”, one of those present said. – Reuters