WASHINGTON—The authorities in military-ruled Burma are said to be stepping up security and have detained at least 20 more people amid rare protests over rising fuel prices, despite rising international calls for restraint.
Scores of people had been detained by late Friday, the fourth day of public protests over a sharp rise in fuel prices, according to sources in Burma. An estimated 20 were taken into custody Thursday outside Rangoon City Hall, witnesses said.
Witnesses said security officers and government-backed mobs encircled the protesters and obscured them from view at the City Hall, beating them and then forcing them inside the City Hall compound.
Another planned protest in Tamwe township, outside the former capital Rangoon, was abruptly cancelled because of a heavy deployment of plainclothes security forces.
“When we arrived at the scene, the government-backed mobs were already there. To our surprise, they dressed up in the outfit that we pro-democracy activists symbolically wear,” Mie Mie, a leading female activist, said.
“We realized the thugs intentionally used this tactic so that bystanders [residents and supporters] wouldn’t know exactly who is who. Eventually, we decided to cancel our planned protest in order to avoid unnecessary confusions and confrontations,” she said.
Other reports suggest the ruling junta is stepping up its military presence more broadly, with vehicles and troops stationed out of sight in local compounds.
The protests, which began Sunday, came in response to a government move to sharply increase the cost of compressed natural gas and diesel—worsening the hardships already facing one of the world’s poorest and most isolated countries.
Among those detained are leading human rights advocate Myint Aye. A brother of Htay Kywe, a leader of the 1988 student uprising, was also detained for questioning and then released.
“The authorities have searched in all the places where they suspect I could hide,” said Htay Kywe, who remains in hiding.
Another leading activist, Htin Kyaw, vowed to emerge from underground, saying, “I will come out and reach out to the public soon. I believe that people will join with us.”
We support their call for the restoration of democracy and genuine political dialogue. We urge the Burmese government to free them immediately.
One of Burma’s best-known journalists, Ludu Daw Amar, also called on the authorities to stop using force and resolve the confrontations peacefully.
Human rights groups and foreign governments meanwhile called on the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to exercise restraint and free those detained for peacefully protesting.
The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office said London “condemns the detention of a number of Burma's ‘1988 Generation’ student leaders…Those detained, and their colleagues, have exercised their right to peaceful protest at the harsh economic burdens being heaped on the long-suffering Burmese people.”
“We support their call for the restoration of democracy and genuine political dialogue. We urge the Burmese government to free them immediately,” British Foreign Minister Meg Munn said in a statement.
A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the U.N. leader was “following events in Myanmar [Burma] closely and with concern, particularly in light of reports that student leaders and others have been arrested by the authorities.”
He called in a statement for the authorities to exercise maximum restraint and pursue constructive dialogue.
T. Kumar, advocacy director for Asia at Amnesty International USA, said that while price hikes had sparked the protests, “the way it came out and those who were arrested indicates that the democracy movement is still alive.”
After 18 years of relative quiet, “the underlying grievances and anger about the one-party military rule…remain the same. The military can arrest people and lock them up but it will not be the end of the story,” Kumar said.
“We are calling on the government to release these people immediately and unconditionally, because these people were expressing their views peacefully and nonviolently. Our larger demand is the release of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Arvind Ganesan, director of the business and human rights program at Human Rights Watch, also criticized the authorities for imposing additional hardships on the people of Burma.
“The government's strategy of arbitrarily arresting its critics reinforces the severe hardship the people of Burma are going through. The recent price hikes in Burma make it harder for ordinary people to sustain themselves by driving up prices of essential goods and services,” Ganesan said.
“Peaceful protest should not land them in jail. Burma's military rulers run the country—and the economy—without any regard for human rights.”
Burma, with a population of about 54 million, has been ruled by successive military governments since 1962.
In 1990, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi won elections by a landslide but the regime ignored the results.
In its latest annual report on human rights around the world, the U.S. State Department said Burma’s poor record worsened during 2006.
In addition to denying its citizens basic freedoms of expression and association, “the government refused to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit prisoners privately. The army increased attacks on ethnic minority villagers in Bago Division and Karen State designed to drive them from their traditional land.”
“In addition, the government continued to commit other serious abuses, including extrajudicial killings, custodial deaths, disappearances, rape, and torture. The government abused prisoners and detainees, held persons in harsh and life threatening conditions, routinely used incommunicado detention, and imprisoned citizens arbitrarily for political motives,” the report said.
Ethnic armed groups also allegedly committed human rights abuses, including forced labor, although reportedly to a much lesser extent than the government, it added.
Original reporting for RFA's Burmese service by Khin Maung Soe, Tin Aung Khine, Zaw Moe Kyaw, and Aung San Myint. Translated and edited by Min Zin. Additional reporting by David Beasley and Richard Finney. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.