Burmese troops pound dissenters

Burmese troops pounded dissenters on Friday by swiftly breaking up street gatherings, occupying key Buddhist monasteries and cutting public internet access. The moves raised concerns that a crackdown on civilians that has killed at least 10 people was set to intensify.

Troops fired tear gas, shot in the air and hit protesters with clubs to break up the largest rally of about 2 000 people in the largest city, Yangon. Five people were seen being dragged into a truck and driven away.
Elsewhere, security forces played cat-and-mouse with smaller die-hard activists.

Demonstrations involving tens of thousands of people demanding an end to 45 years of military dictatorship have grown into the stiffest challenge to Myanmar’s ruling junta in decades. The crisis began on August 19 with rallies against a fuel-price hike, then escalated dramatically when monks began spearheading the drive.

In 1989, the military junta officially changed the English version of its name from Burma to Myanmar. Burmese opposition groups continue to use the name “Burma” since they do not recognise the legitimacy of the ruling military government nor its authority to rename the country.

The military rulers seemed intent on Friday on clearing the streets of monks, who are revered in Burma, sealing off key monasteries and blocking nearby roads with barbed wire. Eliminating their role could embolden troops to crack down harder on remaining civilian protesters.

Getting accurate casualty figures has been difficult, with journalists barred from entering the country and people in Yangon too frightened to speak out. Bob Davis, Australia’s ambassador to Burma, said he had unconfirmed reports that the death toll following two days of violence was “several multiples of the 10 acknowledged by the authorities”.

Out in force

Efforts to squelch the protests appeared to be working on Friday, with soldiers and riot police packed into 20 trucks blocking off the biggest rally near Sule Pagoda. Security forces also moved quickly to disperse crowds of 200 to 300 in other areas, sealing off at least one Yangon neighbourhood.

“The military was out in force before they even gathered and moved quickly as small groups appeared, breaking them up with gunfire, tear gas and clubs,” said Shari Villarosa, the top United States diplomat in Burma. “It’s tragic. These were peaceful demonstrators, very well behaved.”

Hundreds of people have been arrested, carted away in trucks at night or pummelled with batons in recent days, witnesses and diplomats said, as the international community appealed for an end to the violence.

Even Burma’s fellow members in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) expressed “revulsion” and told the junta “to exercise utmost restraint and seek a political solution”. Officials in neighbouring Thailand said airplanes were on standby to evacuate Asean nationals in case the condition deteriorated.

But by Burmese standards, the crackdown has so far been muted, in part because the regime knows that killing monks could trigger a maelstrom of fury.

Authorities told South-East Asian envoys on Friday that a no-go zone had been declared around five key Buddhist monasteries, one diplomat said, raising fears of a repeat of 1988, when troops gunned down thousands of peaceful demonstrators and imprisoned the survivors. There was no sign of monks in the streets.

“We were told security forces had the monks under control” and will now turn their attention to civilian protesters, the Asian diplomat said on condition of anonymity, citing protocol.

Internet access

The government’s apparent decision to cut public internet access—which has played a crucial role in getting news and images of the pro-democracy protests to the outside world—also raised concerns.

Thursday was the most violent day in more than a month of protests, which at their height have brought an estimated 70 000 demonstrators to the streets. Bloody sandals lay scattered on some streets as protesters fled, shouting: “Give us freedom, give us freedom!”

Truckloads of troops in riot gear also raided monasteries on the outskirts of Yangon, beating and arresting dozens of monks, witnesses and Western diplomats said.

“I really hate the government. They arrest the monks while they are sleeping,” said a 30-year-old service worker who witnessed some of the confrontations from his workplace. “These monks haven’t done anything except meditating and praying and helping people.”

Images of bloodied protesters and fleeing crowds have riveted world attention on the escalating crisis.

United Nations

The United Nations’s special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, was heading to the country to promote a political solution and could arrive as early as Saturday, one Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

Though some analysts said negotiations were unlikely, the diplomat said the decision to let Gambari in “means they may see a role for him and the United Nations in mediating dialogue with the opposition and its leaders”.

The protesters won support from countrymen abroad as more than 2 000 Burmese immigrants rallied peacefully in Malaysia and smaller demonstrations against the junta took place in Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Australia, Cambodia and the Philippines.

China, Burma’s largest trading partner and closest friend, for months quietly counselled the regime to speed up its long-stalled political reforms and stepped up pressure on Friday by telling its citizens to reconsider visits to the closed-off nation.

But every other time the regime has been challenged, it has responded with force.

“Judging from the nature and habit of the Myanmar military, they will not allow the monks or activists to topple them,” said Chaiyachoke Julsiriwong, a Burma scholar at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.—Sapa-AP

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