Myanmar Breaks Up Rallies, Cuts
September 28, 2007
Soldiers clubbed and dragged away activists
while firing tear gas and warning shots to break up demonstrations
Friday before they could grow, and the government cut Internet
access, raising fears that a deadly crackdown was set to intensify.
Troops also occupied Buddhist monasteries
in a bid to clear the streets of Myanmar's revered monks, who
have spearheaded the demonstrations.
The government said 10 people have been
killed since the violence began earlier this week, but diplomats
say the toll is likely much higher. Dissident groups have put
the number as high as 200, although that number could not be verified.
Witnesses said security forces aggressively
broke up a rally of about 2,000 people near the Sule Pagoda in
the largest city, Yangon. About 20 trucks packed with soldiers
arrived and announced over loudspeakers, "We give you 10
minutes to move out from the road. Otherwise we will fire."
A group of about 10 people broke away
from the main crowd and rushed toward a line of soldiers. They
were beaten up, and five were seen being hauled away in a truck.
Soldiers dispersed the other protesters,
beating them with clubs and firing shots in the air.
"People in this country are gentle
and calm. (But) people are very angry now and they dare to do
anything," said a shopkeeper, who witnessed the clash and
did not want to be named for fear of reprisal.
Elsewhere, riot police played cat-and-mouse
with smaller groups of die-hard activists, sometimes shooting
into the air.
The clash near the Sule Pagoda was the
most serious of the several sporadic _ though smaller _ protests
that were reported. Earlier Friday, soldiers and riot police dispersed
a crowd of 300, sealing the surrounding neighborhood and ordering
them to disperse. Elsewhere, they fired warning shots to scatter
a group of 200.
By sealing monasteries, the government
seemed intent on clearing the streets of the cinnamon-robed monks.
This could embolden troops to crack down harder on remaining civilian
Efforts to squelch the demonstrations
appeared to be working. Daily protests drawing tens of thousands
of people had grown into the stiffest challenge to the ruling
military junta in two decades, a crisis that began Aug. 19 with
rallies against a fuel price increase, then escalated dramatically
when monks joined in.
Security forces first moved against the
anti-government protesters on Wednesday, when the first of the
10 deaths was reported. Images of bloodied protesters and fleeing
crowds have riveted world attention on the escalating crisis,
prompting many governments to urge the junta in Myanmar, also
known as Burma, to end the violence.
But by Myanmar standards, the crackdown
has so far been muted, in part because the regime knows that killing
monks could trigger a maelstrom of fury.
The United States imposed new sanctions
on the junta's leaders, and the United Nations dispatched a special
envoy, who is expected to arrive Saturday.
Bob Davis, Australia's ambassador to Myanmar,
said he had heard unconfirmed reports that "several multiples
of the 10 acknowledged by the authorities" may have been
killed by troops in Yangon. Scores have been arrested, carted
away in trucks at night or pummeled with batons in recent days,
witnesses and diplomats said, with the junta ignoring all international
appeals for restraint.
The Washington-based dissident group,
U.S. Campaign for Burma, said about 200 protesters were killed
and scores more arrested and beaten. The bloodiest day was Thursday,
when troops opened fire into a crowd.
"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 U.S. diplomat in Myanmar.
"It's tragic. These were peaceful
demonstrators, very well behaved."
British Ambassador Mark Canning told BBC-TV
that "there have been a lot of arrests," with up to
50 people detained at one time.
Getting accurate casualty figures has
been difficult, with residents too afraid to speak out and journalists
barred from openly entering the country. Soldiers and police were
going door-to-door in some hotels looking for foreigners.
The U.S. Embassy in Yangon urged any Americans
still in Myanmar to avoid any demonstrations or marches, refrain
from photographing any troops, and avoid traveling after a nighttime
curfew takes effect.
Video emerged of a striking image _ the
shooting death Thursday of a man identified as Japanese journalist
Kenji Nagai of the video agency APF News.
The Democratic Voice of Burma released
video of security forces opening fire on protesters, including
a man falling forward after apparently being shot at point-blank
range, and the opposition shortwave radio station based in Norway
said the victim was Nagai, 50.
Another image posted on the Web site of
Japanese TV network Fuji showed Nagai lying in the street, camera
still in hand, with a soldier pointing his rifle down at him.
Reporters Without Borders and the Burma
Media Association condemned new attempts by the military rulers
to exert pressure on foreign journalists and the domestic media.
The groups said security forces raided several Yangon hotels Thursday
to check the IDs of foreign journalists.
The junta ordered the closure of several
privately owned newspapers that refused to print government propaganda,
the groups said.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations
expressed "revulsion" at the violence in Myanmar and
told the junta "to exercise utmost restraint and seek a political
solution." Demonstrations against the junta were seen in
Malaysia, Thailand, Japan and elsewhere.
Southeast Asian envoys were told by Myanmar
authorities 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.
Gates were locked and key intersections
near monasteries in Yangon and the second-largest city of Mandalay
were sealed off with barbed wire, and 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.
The government suspended the services
of the two Internet service providers, BaganNet and Myanmar Post
and Telecom, but big companies and embassies hooked up to the
Web by satellite remained online. The Internet has played a crucial
role in getting news and images of the pro-democracy protests
to the outside world in the past month.
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 raided
Buddhist 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 saw some of the confrontations from his workplace.
"These monks haven't done anything except meditating and
praying and helping people."
The U.N. special envoy to Myanmar, Ibrahim
Gambari, headed 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 Myanmar immigrants rallied peacefully
in Malaysia and smaller demonstrations against the junta took
place in Thailand, Indonesia, Japan and the Philippines.
China, Myanmar's largest trading partner,
for months quietly counseled the regime to speed up long-stalled
political reforms. Some analysts say Beijing would hate to be
viewed as party to a bloodbath as it prepares for the 2008 Olympics.
"China hopes that all parties in
Myanmar exercise restraint and properly handle the current issue
so as to ensure the situation there does not escalate and get
complicated," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang
Yu said in Beijing Thursday.
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 Myanmar
scholar at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.