Burma’s military regime kept up its violent crackdown on anti-government protests led by monks Thursday, killing at least nine people, as monks vowed to continue peaceful protests at the cost of their own lives.
Troops and police swept through central Rangoon, giving protesters 10 minutes to leave, before firing on the unarmed crowd, sometimes with automatic weapons, sometimes with rubber bullets.
“One of the soldiers shot me twice with rubber bullets, one in the left leg, one in the right foot,” a Singaporean Chinese man living in Rangoon told RFA’s Burmese and Mandarin services.
“They kicked me and the other people around me and told us to squat down in a ditch. We followed their orders. They told us not to look back... otherwise they would shoot. This lasted about 10 minutes. Then the group’s leader told them to get in the truck and they moved on,” said the man, who declined to be identified to protect his Burmese wife and family.
“We were not even part of the demonstration,” said the man, who was on his way to his office with his wife when they found their way blocked by a demonstration. “I was shot twice. I am having trouble walking. The government is taking shots at people–protesters or not–indiscriminately.”
The government is taking shots at people – protesters or not – indiscriminately.
At least 50,000 people, many of them youths and students, marched undeterred by the deaths a day earlier of at least four protesters, including three Buddhist monks, and they repeatedly defied orders to disperse.
Japanese national Kenji Nagai, 50, a journalist for Tokyo-based video and photo agency APF News, is the first foreign victim of the crackdown. He was confirmed dead by Japan’s foreign ministry. Tokyo has said it holds Burma’s military junta responsible for his death.
In Mandalay, Burma’s second city, around 3,000 monks and 5,000 laypeople protested, residents said. They said some monks had already performed a Buddhist ritual to prepare for death, which would normally be carried out by a soldier before entering battle.
The Singapore citizen said he had contacted his embassy for support, but he declined to give his name for fear of retaliation aimed at his family.
“I don’t think the situation will ease soon,” he said. “The atmosphere is extremely repressive in Rangoon. The monks in the smaller cities will not sit idly by because beating monks is a terrible insult to Buddhism.”
“You know, yesterday, some monks got on their knees to plead with the soldiers while chanting good wishes to them. Those who saw it could not take it because monks do not kneel down to ordinary people—it’s the other way round,” he told reporter Wen Jian.
“The monks are angry. And the people are angry as a result. I think the situation will get worse—if not in Rangoon, then in the smaller cities. The people will continue to rise, and the government will use even more ruthless measures to crack down,” he said.
He said the protests had spilled into the Chinese quarter of Rangoon on Wednesday, with a strong show of support despite official prohibitions.
“The Chinese community is made up of two groups of people—those with money and those without money. Those with money are mostly doing business with the junta. So they are reluctant to criticize the government—I am ashamed to say that I am one of them. That’s why I must ask you to withhold my name. But we are really very angry inside,” he said.
In one area, according to an eyewitness, civilians attacked security forces with knives.
“I went there because I heard people couldn’t stand it any more, so they had surrounded the security forces and attacked them with knives," one eyewitness said.
"It’s really true that with knives they were attacking people holding guns….The military arrived after we did. They came in their vehicles, and there were at least 15 people in a vehicle. I saw four vehicles. I saw them shooting, with my own eyes. I saw them shooting, and I saw people shot at. I don’t know whether they died or how many corpses there were," the witness said.
In Mandalay, “the monks were not afraid. The people and the monks were not afraid,” one businessman from Mandalay said.
“People are still going out every day to confront them and to demonstrate peacefully. Of course, people are angry that the monks got shot and killed, [but] they are not afraid.”
Asked if the protests would continue on Friday, he said: “It’s possible.”
Official media said nine people were killed and another 11 protesters injured,including one woman.
“The protesters threw bricks, sticks, and knives at the security forces, so because of the desperate situation the security forces had to fire warning shots,” the government said in a statement carried in the media.
The violence brought renewed outrage from the international community. In unusually critical language, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, called on Burma—a member of the group—to stop using violence.
Nine ASEAN foreign ministers said in a statement they were “appalled to receive reports of automatic weapons being used” and demanded that the Burmese government “immediately desist from the use of violence against demonstrators.”
In a statement apparently aimed at Beijing, U.S. President George W. Bush called on countries having the junta’s ear to use their influence to bring an end to the crackdown.
“I call on all nations that have influence with the regime to join us in supporting the aspirations of the Burmese people and to tell the Burmese Junta to cease using force on its own people, who are peacefully expressing their desire for change,” Bush said in a statement Thursday.
“The world is watching the people of Burma take to the streets to demand their freedom, and the American people stand in solidarity with these brave individuals.”
Original reporting by RFA’s Burmese service. Director: Nancy Shwe. Additional reporting in Mandarin by Wen Jian. Service director: Jennifer Chou. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.